Under a 1943 Supreme Court decision called Parker v. Brown, state governments and private parties who act on state orders are typically immune from prosecution under federal antitrust laws. Thus, while private parties who create cartels face severe penalties, state governments can authorize the same anti-competitive behavior with impunity.
Still, the Supreme Court has held that this kind of immunity only applies if the private parties who engage in cartel behavior are “actively supervised” by state officials. A case now before the Supreme Court, N.C. State Board of Dental Examiners v.FTC, presents an opportunity to expand on that directive.
Beginning in about 2003, the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners issued cease-and-desist orders to beauticians and others who were offering “teeth whitening” services (in which a plastic strip treated with peroxide is applied to the teeth in order to make them brighter). Although teeth-whitening is perfectly safe—and can even be done at home with an over-the-counter kit—the state’s licensed dentists want to limit competition in this lucrative area.
The Board is made up entirely of practicing dentists and hygienists and is elected by other licensed dentists and hygienists—with no input from the general public—and evidence later revealed that the Board issued orders on this subject in response to complaints from dentists, not consumers. The Federal Trade Commission charged the Board with engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Although the Board argued that it should enjoy Parker immunity, the FTC, and later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, rejected that argument, holding that the Board was not “actively supervised” by the state, but was instead a group of private business owners exploiting government power.