Court eases law on pricing

Justices strike down broad antitrust ban on minimum prices

June 29, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Striking down an antitrust rule nearly a century old, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is no longer automatically unlawful for manufacturers and distributors to agree on setting minimum retail prices.

The decision will give producers significantly more leeway, though not unlimited power, to dictate retail prices and to restrict the flexibility of discounters.

Five justices said the new rule could, in some instances, lead to more competition and better service. But four dissenting justices agreed with the submission of 37 states and consumer groups that the abandonment of the old rule would lead to significantly higher prices and less competition for consumer and other goods.

The court struck down the 96-year-old rule that resale price maintenance agreements were an automatic, or per se, violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. In its place, the court instructed judges considering such agreements for possible antitrust violations to apply a case-by-case approach, known as a "rule of reason," to assess their impact on competition.

The decision was the latest in a string of opinions this term to overturn Supreme Court precedents. It marked the latest in a line of Supreme Court victories for big businesses and antitrust defendants. And it was the latest of the court's antitrust decisions in recent years to reject rules that had prohibited various marketing agreements between companies.

The Bush administration, along with Chicago School economists, had argued that the blanket prohibition against resale price maintenance agreements was archaic and counterproductive because, they said, some agreements actually promote competition.

For example, they said, such agreements can make it easier for a new producer by assuring retailers that they will be able to recoup their investments in helping to market the product. And they said some distributors could be unfairly harmed by others -- such as Internet-based retailers -- that could offer discounts because they would not be incurring the expenses of providing product demonstrations and other specialized consumer services.

A majority of the court agreed that the flat ban on price agreements discouraged these and other marketing practices that could be helpful to competition.

"In sum, it is a flawed antitrust doctrine that serves the interests of lawyers -- by creating legal distinctions that operate as traps for the unaware -- more than the interests of consumers -- by requiring manufacturers to choose second-best options to achieve sound business objectives," the court said in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

But in his dissent, portions of which he read from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said there was no compelling reason to overturn a century's worth of Supreme Court decisions that had affirmed the prohibition on resale maintenance agreements.

"The only safe predictions to make about today's decision are that it will likely raise the price of goods at retail and that it will create considerable legal turbulence as lower courts seek to develop workable principles," he wrote. "I do not believe that the majority has shown new or changed conditions sufficient to warrant overruling a decision of such long standing."

During the period from 1937 to 1975 when Congress allowed the states to adopt laws that permitted retail price fixing, economists estimated that such agreements covered about 10 percent of consumer good purchases.

In today's dollars, Breyer estimated that the agreements translate to a higher annual average bill for a family of four of roughly $750 to $1,000.

The dissent was signed by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The case involved an appeal of a judgment of $1.2 million against Leegin Creative Leather Products Inc. after it cut off Kay's Kloset, a suburban Dallas shop, for refusing to honor Leegin's no-discount policy. The judgment was automatically tripled under antitrust law.

Leegin's marketing strategy for finding a niche in the highly competitive world of small leather goods was to sell its "Brighton" line of fashion accessories through small boutiques that could offer personalized service. Retailers were required to accept a no-discounting policy.

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