Another law we don’t need

-By Michael M. Bates

Let’s say you own a retail establishment in Illinois. Some of your employees want you to close on Sundays so they can enjoy the day off. It’s not a bad idea, especially when you consider the overhead you’d save.

There is one problem. Unless your competition also is closed when you are, you’ll lose business. So you approach your competitors and encourage them to do what you’re thinking of doing: Stay closed on Sundays.

Some say it’s a fine idea. Others tell you to get lost; they’ll be more than happy to take whatever sales you lose by taking the day off.

So you can either close on Sundays, losing potential profits, or you can stay open, disappointing your employees and paying more overhead. You’re stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, right?

Not necessarily. In the Land of Lincoln you have an alternative. If you can’t persuade people to embrace what you believe is a good idea, go to Springfield and have a law passed making them do what you think they should do.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Illinois is one of the few states in which auto dealers are closed on Sundays. Some dealers might actually wish to be open on a day when plenty of people have the time to shop. Some, perhaps many, customers would like to have the option of buying a car on Sundays. For folks working traditional Monday through Friday jobs, it would be a genuine convenience. All that makes no difference.

The Illinois legislature, always receptive to pressure from deep-pocketed campaign contributors, passed bills mandating Sunday closings for car dealers in 1951 and 1956. Gov. Adlai Stevenson had the good sense to veto the first one and Gov. William Stratton followed suit on the second.

The 1961 version was signed by Gov. Otto Kerner (later sent to prison for taking bribes), but was tossed out by the State Supreme Court in 1962. The court determined the law violated the Illinois constitution by singling out only one activity for restriction. Restaurants, drugstores, and other retail establishments weren’t included, just car dealers.

Jim Moran, the Courtesy (Ford) Man, did his own live TV commercials and was very familiar to Chicagoland viewers back in those days. Mr. Moran hailed the court’s ruling as “a real milestone for free enterprise in America.”

It was a temporary victory for consumers and car dealers who wished to run their businesses as they saw fit. After the Supreme Court decision, a voluntary effort to keep auto dealerships dark on Sundays was tried. It didn’t work. Yet another voluntary attempt was made in the Chicago area in 1967, again with less than the desired results.

Showing once again that bad ideas just don’t go away, another effort to pass the law was mounted. Some car dealers lobbied hard and in 1982 legislation prohibiting Sunday hours passed. Gov. James Thompson signed the bill and it became effective in 1983.

There was another court challenge. This time it failed. The new law was nearly identical to the earlier one that was overturned, but now the Illinois Supreme Court decided subsequent acts by the General Assembly had “demonstrated a legislative purpose to regulate certain aspects of the sale of automobiles in a manner different from other retailers.”

Obviously, this wasn’t a real milestone for free enterprise in America. So a few years later a stouthearted state representative – a Democrat no less – had the audacity to suggest letting consumers buy cars on a Sunday.

According to a 1987 column by Chicago Tribune auto reporter Jim Mateja, reaction to Rep. Grace Mary Stern’s proposal was fierce. She received numerous phone calls and, “Of the calls I got, easily 95 percent were from car salesmen, angry car salesmen.” 1,500 letters in opposition were mailed to the committee examining Rep. Stern’s bill.

A spokesman for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, representing over 750 dealers, noted “the majority of the dealers were opposed to opening on Sunday, and the salespeople were very happy with Sunday off.” The committee of jurisdiction voted down her measure.

Laws like the one requiring Sunday closings for auto dealerships are designed for special interests, not the public interest. When was the last time a friend told you how great it is to live in a state where you can’t buy a car on Sundays?

The concept of property rights steadily erodes. Auto dealers should have the right to be open on the days they want.

Sometimes freedom is lost not in sweeping revolutions, but a little bit at a time. Telling a particular business what days it can not operate clearly isn’t a legitimate function of government.

Maybe someday the people of Illinois will have enough of the micromanagement. They’ll demand auto dealers, like almost every other enterprise, make their own decisions on hours of operation. They’ll demand the public interest be placed ahead of the special interests.
Until then, in Illinois, it’s never on a Sunday.

(This Michael Bates column appeared in the August 30, 2007 Reporter Newspapers)
Mike Bates can be contacted at His book, Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths, is available at,, or and can be ordered through most bookstores. It’s also now available at the Orland Park, Mokena and Tinley Park Public Libraries.

His presence on the web can be viewed at

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