Rules Without Reason

Closing out Week Two of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a contribution from a very special guest: Commissioner Noah J. Phillips of the Federal Trade Commission. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.

Cite this Article
Noah J. Phillips, Rules Without Reason, Truth on the Market (May 06, 2022),

In his July Executive Order, President Joe Biden called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to consider making a series of rules under its purported authority to regulate “unfair methods of competition.”[1] Chair Lina Khan has previously voiced her support for doing so.[2] My view is that the Commission has no such rulemaking powers, and that the scope of the authority asserted would amount to an unconstitutional delegation of power by the Congress.[3] Others have written about those issues, and we can leave them for another day.[4] Professors Richard Pierce and Gus Hurwitz have each written that, if FTC rulemaking is to survive judicial scrutiny, it must apply to conduct that is covered by the antitrust laws.[5]

That idea raises an inherent tension between the concept of rulemaking and the underlying law. Proponents of rulemaking advocate “clear” rules to, in their view, reduce ambiguity, ensure predictability, promote administrability, and conserve resources otherwise spent on ex post, case-by-case adjudication.[6] To the extent they mean administrative adoption of per se illegality standards by rulemaking, it flies in the face of contemporary antitrust jurisprudence, which has been moving from per se standards back to the historical “rule of reason.”

Recognizing that the Sherman Act could be read to bar all contracts, federal courts for over a century have interpreted the 1890 antitrust law only to apply to “unreasonable” restraints of trade.[7] The Supreme Court first adopted this concept in its landmark 1911 decision in Standard Oil, upholding the lower court’s dissolution of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.[8] Just four years after the Federal Trade Commission Act was enacted, the Supreme Courtestablished the “the prevailing standard of analysis” for determining whether an agreement constitutes an unreasonable restraint of trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.[9] Justice Louis Brandeis, who as an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in creating the FTC, described the scope of this “rule of reason” inquiry in the Chicago Board of Trade case:

The true test of legality is whether the restraint imposed is such as merely regulates and perhaps thereby promotes competition or whether it is such as may suppress or even destroy competition. To determine that question the court must ordinarily consider the facts peculiar to the business to which the restraint is applied; its condition before and after the restraint was imposed; the nature of the restraint and its effect, actual or probable. The history of the restraint, the evil believed to exist, the reason for adopting the particular remedy, the purpose or end sought to be attained, are all relevant facts.[10]

The rule of reason was and remains today a fact-specific inquiry, but the Court also determined from early on that certain restraints invited a different analytical approach: per se prohibitions. The per se rule involves no weighing of the restraint’s procompetitive effects. Once proven, a restraint subject to the per se rule is presumed to be unreasonable and illegal.In the 1911 Dr. Miles case, the Court held that resale minimum price fixing was illegal per se under Section 1.[11] It found horizontal price-fixing agreements to be per se illegal in Socony Vacuum.[12] Since Socony Vacuum, the Court has limited the application of per se illegality to bid rigging (a form of horizontal price fixing),[13] horizontal market divisions,[14] tying,[15] and group boycotts[16].

Starting in the 1970s, especially following research demonstrating the benefits to consumers of a number of business arrangements and contracts previously condemned by courts as per se illegal, the Court began to limit the categories of conduct that received per se treatment. In 1977, in GTE Sylvania, the Courtheld that vertical customer and territorial restraints should be judged under the rule of reason.[17] In 1979, in BMI, it held that a blanket license issued by a clearinghouse of copyright owners that set a uniform price and prevented individual negotiation with licensees was a necessary precondition for the product and was thus subject to the rule of reason.[18] In 1984, in Jefferson Parish, the Court rejected automatic application of the per se rule to tying.[19] A year later, the Court held that the per se rule did not apply to all group boycotts.[20] In 1997, in State Oil Company v. Khan, it held that maximum resale price fixing is not per se illegal.[21] And, in 2007, the Court held that minimum resale price fixing should also be assessed under the rule of reason. In Leegin, the Court made clear that the per se rule is not the norm for analyzing the reasonableness of restraints; rather, the rule of reason is the “accepted standard for testing” whether a practice is unreasonable.[22]

More recent Court decisions reflect the Court’s refusal to expand the scope of “quick look” analysis, an application of the rule of reason that nonetheless truncates the necessary fact-finding for liability where “an observer with even a rudimentary understanding of economics could conclude that the arrangements in question would have an anticompetitive effect on customers and markets.”[23] In 2013, the Supreme Court rejected an FTC request to require courts to apply the “quick look” approach to reverse-payment settlement agreements.[24] The Court has also backed away from presumptive rules of legality. In American Needle, the Court stripped the National Football League of Section 1 immunity by holding that the NFL is not entitled to the single entity defense under Copperweld and instead, its conduct must be analyzed under the “flexible” rule of reason.[25] And last year, in NCAA v. Alston, the Court rejected the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s argument that it should have benefited from a “quick look”, restating that “most restraints challenged under the Sherman Act” are subject to the rule of reason.[26]

The message from the Court is clear: rules are the exception, not the norm. It “presumptively applies rule of reason analysis”[27] and applies the per se rule only to restraints that “lack any redeeming virtue.”[28] Per se rules are reserved for “conduct that is manifestly anticompetitive” and that “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.”[29] And that’s a short list.  What is more, the Leegin Court made clear that administrative convenience—part of the justification for administrative rules[30]—cannot in and of itself be sufficient to justify application of the per se rule.[31]

The Court’s warnings about per se rules ring just as true for rules that could be promulgated under the Commission’s purported UMC rulemaking authority, which would function just as a per se rule would. Proof of the conduct ends the inquiry. No need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects. No procompetitive justifications. No efficiencies. No balancing.

But if the Commission attempts administratively to adopt per se rules, it will run up against precedents making clear that the antitrust laws do not abide such rules. This is not simply a matter of the—already controversial[32]—historical attempts by the agency to define under Section 5 conduct that goes outside the Sherman Act. Rather, establishing per se rules about conduct covered under the rule of reason effectively overrules Supreme Court precedent. For example, the Executive Order contemplates the FTC promulgating a rule concerning pay-for-delay settlements.[33] But, to the extent it can fashion rules, the agency can only prohibit by rule that which is illegal. To adopt a per se ban on conduct covered by the rule of reason is to take out of the analysis the justifications for and benefits of the conduct in question. And while the FTC Act enables the agency some authority to prohibit conduct outside the scope of the Sherman Act,[34] it does not do away with consideration of justifications or benefits when determining whether a practice is an “unfair method of competition.” As a result, the FTC cannot condemn categorically via rulemaking conduct that the courts have refused to condemn as per se illegal, and instead have analyzed under the rule of reason.[35] Last year, the FTC docketed a petition filed by the Open Markets Institute and others to ban “exclusionary contracts” by monopolists and other “dominant firms” under the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority.[36] The precise scope is not entirely clear from the filing, but courts have held consistently that some conduct clearly covered (e.g., exclusive dealing) is properly evaluated under the rule of reason.[37]

The Supreme Court has been loath to bless per se rules by courts. Rules are blunt instruments and not appropriately applied to conduct that the effect of which is not so clearly negative. Except for the “obvious,” an analysis of whether a restraint is unreasonable is not a “simple matter” and “easy labels do not always supply ready answers.” [38] Over the decades, the Court has rebuked lower courts attempting to apply rules to conduct properly evaluated under the rule of reason.[39] Should the Commission attempt the same administratively, or if it attempts administratively to rewrite judicial precedents, it would be rewriting the antitrust law itself and tempting a similar fate.