Wrong, but Not Surprising: A Loss in Extending Granholm to Shipments by Retailers

Lee Pender | October 5, 2007

The recent decision in Arnold’s Wines, Inc. v. Boyle, Docket No. 06 Civ. 3357 (Southern District of NY, Sept. 9, 2007), which upholds New York’s requirement that retailers be located within the state to sell and ship to New York residents, illustrates the difficulty of separating dictum from holding in the Granholm case. (See the September 18th blog post for an explanation of the difference.)

My reading of the Arnold’s Wines opinion is that Judge Howell failed to put a famous statement from the 1990 North Dakota case, quoted in Granholm, in the context of the Granholm holding. The key quotation is that North Dakota had a 21st Amendment right “to require that all liquor sold for use in the State be purchased from a licensed in-state wholesaler.” States and local licensee trade associations cite the statement as a fundamental principle of constitutional law, while out-of-state plaintiffs dismiss it as mere dictum and therefore incapable of serving as the decisional principle in discrimination cases. In Arnold’s Wines it appears each side was half right.

To determine whether the North Dakota reference in Granholm is controlling precedent, one must examine the latter opinion to see if it was necessary to the result. When one does that, it seems clear that New York has the right to require all wine to go through a three-tier system, but no right to require that any element of that system be located within the state of New York unless the discrimination against out-of-state sellers can be justified under the Commerce Clause.

Nothing in the Arnold’s Wines memorandum opinion suggests evidence of justification other than New York’s desire to have a three-tier system and the general objectives of states’ adopting such systems after Repeal. Three-tier systems are like any other exercise of regulatory power by the state; they are valid only if they either do not discriminate against interstate commerce relative to local or discriminate no more than necessary to serve a legitimate state purpose that cannot be achieved by available nondiscriminatory means. The burden is on the state to justify discrimination. However, the court decided that the defendants win as a matter of law, with no factual hearing. It looks to me as if the court wrongly deprived the plaintiff of its right to require the state to prove its case.