New York City is abuzz with the setting aside of Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on the sale of sugared drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces. The ban applies to establishments directly under the authority of the City’s Health Department (restaurants, movie theaters) but not those that are not (retail stores, church suppers). I have been following the rule with interest because my colleague Olivier Sylvain (guest blogging at Concurring Opinions next month, so stay tuned) has placed it at the core of his 1L course on Legislation and Regulation. In my section of the same course, but with respect to a different rule, I ask my students to pretend to represent the American Beverage Association, today’s successful plaintiffs. The ABA titled its victory post this morning “Choice Lives!”: “Individuals are the ones with the power to choose what foods and beverages are right for them.”
The decision, by New York State Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling, makes a move one often sees in high-profile trial court cases, which is that it reaches its conclusion on as many bases as possible. In many ways, therefore, the decision is an alarming overreach. In particular, Judge Tingling says that the regulation is arbitrary and capricious because it is riddled with exceptions: not just for the above-mentioned retail stores, but also, for example, for beverages that contain a lot of milk or any alcohol. It cannot be right that an agency acts arbitrarily by failing to be comprehensive. The rules’ various exemptions, while fairly numerous, each bears a plausible justification. That plausibility is more than sufficient to get by the arbitrariness test.
The weakest part of the opinion is a long history of the New York City Charter, which the judge recites in support of his position that obesity is not a “health” issue within the Charter’s meaning. Not only does the opinion give a very dubious restrictive construction to the Charter language, but the Mayor’s soda rule survives that construction. Judge Tingling says that the Executive’s authority to “limit or ban” legal food items applies only when the city is in “eminent [sic] danger due to disease”  – but that is precisely the Health Department’s claim, and it is a reasonable one. And, as the City has emphasized, there is no ban here on soda in any quantity; all that is restricted is delivery systems, for which alternatives are available. You can buy 64 ounces of Coke if you want, as long as you are willing to carry four cups.
Nevertheless, Judge Tingling is right that New York State’s nondelegation doctrine – the doctrine that administrative law professors who teach only federal cases tell their students is a dead letter – prohibits the rule. The foundational case, Boreali v Axelrod, is nearly on all fours with this case. Health departments, pursuant only to sweeping language giving them authority over public health, cannot in New York State limit trade in legal markets over which the legislature has given them no explicit authority. If the City is to win its promised appeal, it is going to need to argue that Boreali should be overruled or limited.
The problem with that is that Boreali is right. Nondelegation is an important constitutional principle and should not be sidelined out of existence. I don’t disagree with the Mayor that obesity is a big problem, and am not per se opposed to the kind of state paternalism that shoves people in the direction of healthy behaviors; but I think it’s not just reasonable, but better politics, better civics, and better constitutional law to require those shoves to come from a legislative, rather than an executive and bureaucratic, process.
See also Rick Hills’ interesting comments here.