The Second Circuit weighs in on economic protectionism, an issue which could affect Nashville’s proposed local hire referendum

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has officially weighed in on an issue that looks increasingly likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court:  Whether laws that promote pure economic protectionism — known in economic terms as “rent seeking” — are prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  As this blog has previously explained, with Nashville’s voters contemplating adding a “local hire” provision to the Metropolitan Charter this August, this debate appears poised to return to Tennessee soon as well.

The Second Circuit’s opinion helpfully outlines the divergence of authority that has emerged with respect to this issue, noting:

In recent years, some courts of appeals have held that laws and regulations whose sole purpose is to shield a particular group from intrastate economic competition cannot survive rational basis review.  See St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, 712 F.3d 215, 222 (5th Cir. 2013) (“[N]either precedent nor broader principles suggest that mere economic protection of a particular industry is a legitimate governmental purpose[.]”); Merrifield v. Lockyer, 547 F.3d 978, 991, n.15 (9th Cir. 2008) (“[M]ere economic protectionism for the sake of economic protectionism is irrational with respect to determining if a classification survives rational basis review.”); Craigmiles v. Giles, 312 F.3d 220, 224 (6th Cir. 2002) (“[P]rotecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate governmental purpose.”).  The Tenth Circuit, on the other hand, has squarely held that such a protectionist purpose is legitimate.  See Powers v. Harris, 379 F.3d 1208, 1221 (10th Cir. 2004) (“[A]bsent a violation of a specific constitutional provision or other federal law, intrastate economic protectionism constitutes a legitimate state interest.”).

Ultimately, the majority opinion flatly concludes that:  “economic favoritism is rational for purposes of our review of state action under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Rejecting the majority’s conclusion on this point, however, the similarly informative concurring opinion penned by Judge Christopher Droney reaches a directly contrary view.  Judge Droney explains:

[T]here must be at least some perceived public benefit for legislation or administrative rules to survive rational basis review under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.  As the majority acknowledges, only the Tenth Circuit has adopted the view that pure economic protectionism is a legitimate state interest.  See Powers v. Harris, 379 F.3d 1208, 1221 (10th Cir. 2004).  Two of the circuits that reached the opposite conclusion expressly rejected the Tenth Circuit’s approach.  See St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, 712 F.3d 215, 222‐23 (5th Cir. 2013); Merrifield v. Lockyer, 547 F.3d 978, 991 n.15 (9th Cir. 2008).

I agree with the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning in St. Joseph Abbey, particularly insofar as it disputes the Tenth Circuit’s reliance in Powers on the very Supreme Court cases that the majority cites in support of its holding here.  See St. Joseph Abbey, 712 F.3d at 222 (“[N]one of the Supreme Court cases Powers cites stands for that proposition [that intrastate economic protectionism is a legitimate state interest].    Rather, the cases indicate that protecting or favoring a particular intrastate industry is not an illegitimate interest when protection of the industry can be linked to advancement of the public interest or general welfare.” (emphasis in original)); see also Powers, 379 F.3d at 1226 (Tymkovich, J., concurring) (“Contrary to the majority . . ., whenever courts have upheld legislation that might otherwise appear protectionist . . ., courts have always found that they could also rationally advance a non‐protectionist public good.” (emphasis in original)).

A review of the Supreme Court decisions confirms the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that some perceived public benefit was recognized by the Court in upholding state and local legislation. . .

As this author has previously noted, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit — which has jurisdiction over Tennessee — was the first Circuit court to resolve this issue, holding in Craigmiles v. Giles, 312 F.3d 220, 224 (6th Cir. 2002) that: “protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate governmental purpose.”   The Tennessee Supreme Court has reached a similar conclusion with respect to the Tennessee Constitution, concluding in Consumers Gasoline Stations v. City of Pulaski, 292 S.W.2d 735, 737 (Tenn. 1956) that: “Although [a] city may have the right to regulate [a] business, it does not have the right to exclude certain persons from engaging in the business while allowing others to do so.”

Whether this line of authority will cause Nashville’s local hire ordinance to be invalidated — and whether the U.S. Supreme Court will definitively answer the question to resolve the growing divergence of authority — only time will tell.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at

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