California statutes prohibit national optical chains from providing eye exams in the same space in which they sell eyewear. But, a federal judge has now ruled that such laws violate the United States Constitution by discriminating against interstate commerce.

The plaintiffs, who challenged Californias statutes, were the National Association of Optometrists & Opticians and two national chains, Lenscrafters Inc. and Eye Care Centers of America Inc. These groups argued that the ability to sell glasses in the same office where eyes are examined is a significant competitive advantage currently enjoyed by dispensing optometrists and ophthalmologists.

Californias Attorney General Bill Lockyer defended the state, arguing that it has a legal right to regulate the practice of professionals to protect the health and safety of its citizens. The state also argued that the laws were designed to protect against corporate influence interfering with optometrists professional judgment.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer

District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton concluded that dispensing eye doctors are in direct competition with optical chains, and that consumers are at no greater health risk in the offices of optical chains than in those of dispensing optometrists. Defendants in the case at bar have not offered any health benefits or disadvantages that are unique to optometrists who associate with a chain. In fact, it appears that the potential harm to patients exists irrespective of the setting, he wrote. Being an eyeglass wearer myself, the conclusion that eye care may well be shoddy wherever provided, is, to say the least, cold comfort.

The judge acknowledged that selling techniques used in corporate optical offices are just as prevalent among dispensing optometrists, who can derive substantial revenue from selling premium eyewear. If the dispensing optometrist quits selling premium lenses, he would quit driving his Mercedes, one expert stated in deposition.

In response to the verdict, the California Optometric Association (COA) has urged Mr. Lockyer to appeal the ruling, particularly on the point that optometrists and optical chains are in head-to-head competition.

In a spate of judicial activism, Judge Karlton decided to strike out on his own, characterizing licensed California optometrists and out-of-state optical companies as the same for purposes of the salient analysis. This was error, wrote the attorney for the COA to the attorney general.

The letter concludes, Judge Karltons decision signals the dawn of a new and dangerous era in which the line between licensed professional and business enterprise is blurred, if not altogether razed.

Technically, the national chains could take immediate advantage of the ruling in the Eastern District of California, but will no doubt hold off until appeals are exhausted, according to a December 7 article in the Sacramento Bee.

Vol. No: 144:01Issue: 1/15/2007