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Transportation in the Books

Scales of Justice

The Supreme Court and America's Roads

2/26/2016 by Parth Raval

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia has brought new attention to the Supreme Court, the nine justices who interpret the nation’s law at the federal level. They make up one of the fundamental bodies of the United States government and are some of the nation’s top legal minds. It may feel like the dealings of this court are far removed from the day-in, day-out work of fleet managers and drivers. In reality, the Supreme Court’s rulings on landmark cases have directly affected how drivers and dispatchers work today.

Take, for example, Munn v. Illinois, an 1877 case that dealt with transportation charges. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a state is legally allowed to regulate how much a private industry charges if that private industry affects the public interest. The private industry in question, Munn and Scott, was a grain warehouse whose maximum rates for transportation were set by a third-party, the National Grange. The effects of this ruling can be felt directly in modern transportation. There are several regulations around freight costs that prevent companies from monopolizing the industry.

In view of the Supreme Court’s entire history, the response to Munn v. Illinois was fairly tame. On the other end of the spectrum is Lochner v. New York, an infamous case that kick-started the so-called Lochner Era. The Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a basic right to form contracts with employers. This seemingly benign ruling led to a period of judicial overstepping, in which the Supreme Court interfered with private business and, for all intents and purposes, created new laws rather than interpreting existing ones. However, Lochner v. New York established an important precedent that today allows drivers to sign contracts with carriers. Without Lochner v. New York, owner-operators would be unable to contract with multiple companies without federal interference.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and appointed for life. The American public cannot vote a justice into or out of office. In an election year, however, it is worth paying attention to the opinions of those running for office, for it may come to one of them to appoint Antonin Scalia’s replacement. A justice sympathetic to transportation may be influential for decades to come.

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