A Pennsylvania court declared the state’s good moral character requirement for cosmetology licensees unconstitutional on equal protection grounds in an August 25 ruling, holding that the different treatment of cosmetologists and barbers—who are not subject to such a requirement—with criminal records was not supported by evidence. The court declined to declare the rules unconstitutional on due process grounds.
The applicant plaintiffs in the case, Courtney Haveman and Amanda Spillane, were both denied esthetician licenses by the board on the grounds that they did not possess the good moral character necessary to practice cosmetology.
In response, the pair filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, seeking to invalidate the good moral character requirement on constitutional grounds. Such requirements, they claimed, needlessly discriminate against people with criminal histories in a field in which those criminal histories would have no impact on a licensee’s ability to practice, and violated applicants’ rights both to due process and freedom discrimination.
The court rejected the plaintiffs’ due process claims. The analysis of any potential violation of the applicants’ due process rights was made using the rational basis standard, a very permissive standard under which a statute must only bear a rational relation to furthering a legitimate state interest in order to survive a challenge.
Identifying the law’s ostensible purpose as the protection of the public, the court agreed with the board that the moral character requirement could rationally further that purpose by helping to ensure that cosmetologists and estheticians, who come into close contact with their customer’s bodies, are trustworthy.
Haveman and Spillane’s challenge to the law on equal protection grounds met with more success. They noted that the state’s Barber License Law has no good moral character requirement, despite the similarity of the fields of barbering and cosmetology.
The judges of the Commonwealth Court agreed. Noting that both professions provide many of the same services and are even often employed in the same location, the court agreed with the two applicants that, where, “even if they have identical criminal records, even if they will perform similar services, even if they will stand one salon chair apart, the law requires good character of only the cosmetology applicants.”
Noting also that the board’s chairman admitted that nothing about the practice of cosmetology “offers specific risks of certain kinds of crime,” the court concluded that such different treatment under the law was a violation of equal protection. The court declared the good moral character requirements for cosmetology licensees unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Two justices, seemingly unhappy that the court took the case at all, dissented on procedural grounds, holding that the two applicants should have either exhausted their administrative options before bringing a court suit or filed an appeal of the denials of their license applications.
One justice concurred in the conclusion but dissented, as she would have gone further and held that the moral character requirements violate applicants’ due process rights. “Good character has nothing to do with protecting beauty salons,” Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote. “Indeed, the Board admits that it has no evidence that the good character requirement protects salon customers . . . Moreover, the good character requirement is unconstitutionally imprecise and arbitrary.”
The ostensible justification of the character requirements—the close contact estheticians and cosmetologists have with their clients’ bodies—she continued, is not supported by any evidence, and she noted that the board had failed to point to any specific circumstances under which the requirements would actually protect the public.