Houston Taxi Ordinance Doesn't Violate Equal Protection Clause

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As Occupy Wall Street protests rage on nationwide, it seems that America is having a Network moment. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore.

While it is unclear what "this" is, and how we're going to avoid taking it, it no doubt involves sit-ins and clever signage. After all, what is a movement without branding?

So with the anti-greed sentiment that is sweeping the media, it's surprising that there has been almost no coverage of a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision this week that allows the rich to keep getting richer. On Monday, the circuit upheld a new Houston taxi ordinance that protects large taxi firms against competition from new taxi companies, finding that the ordinance does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

In December 2007, the Houston City Council passed Ordinance 2007-1419, authorizing 211 additional taxicab permits to be allocated over the subsequent four-year period. New taxicab permits had not been issued in Houston since 2001, and Houston wanted to expand its cab fleets. The ordinance planned to distribute new permits based on the size of the taxi company.

Of the 211 permits, 108 were designated for large taxi companies - those that currently have over 80 permits - but only 16 were allotted for small companies.

The Greater Houston Small Taxicab Company Owners Association (the Association), representing approximately 60 of the 117 small taxi companies that each hold one to three taxi permits with Houston, sued to enjoin the ordinance. The Association argued that the distribution proposal in the Ordinance violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ordinance, noting that Houston had offered a reasonable explanation for the disparate distribution of permits: the larger the taxi company, the more likely it is to offer a broader range of services that better serve consumer needs.

Moreover, the court ruled that even if Houston was motivated in part by economic protectionism, there was no real dispute that promoting full-service taxi operations is a legitimate government purpose under the rational basis test.

In justifying its decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the Houston taxi ordinance provides for a petition process through which smaller cab companies can appeal for additional licenses. Do you agree that petition caveat is enough to satisfy Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause scrutiny? Or is this just one more hit to the little guy?

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