Is the retail to consumer shipping battle headed to the Supreme Court?

Sovos | October 15, 2007

The issue of direct shipments by retailers to consumers has become a very hot topic of late. As of today, retailers can ship to less than half of the number of states to which producing wineries can ship. The Specialty Wine Retailers Association is fighting hard with both legislative efforts and litigation to open more states for retail to consumer shipments. The heated battle in Illinois, where out-of-state retailers recently lost the ability to ship to consumers under HB 429, raised national awareness to this issue.

The fundamental question is whether the decision in Granholm v. Heald that said states must treat in-state and out-of-state wineries evenhandedly should also apply to in-state and out-of-state retailers. R. Corbin Houchins recently made two posts (September 18th and October 5th) that do an excellent job of highlighting the legal questions that come into play when attempting to extend Granholm to retailers. In his October 5th post, Mr. Houchins indicates his disagreement with the reasoning of the recent and important Arnold’s Wines v. Boyle opinion, which upheld discrimination against out-of-state retailers in New York.

There is a very interesting recent article, with substantial background materials for lawyers who do not practice in the subject area, on FindLaw.com titled “The Fight Over State Laws Favoring In-State Alcohol Purveyors: Do Such Laws Violate the Dormant Commerce Clause?” that also examines the important ruling in Arnold’s Wines. This article is definitely worth reading.

The Court has had to examine the intersection between the dormant Commerce Clause idea and the Twenty-First Amendment a number of times. Two years ago, in the seminal case of Granholm v. Heald, the Court appeared to send a message that while the Twenty-First Amendment may indeed empower states in some ways, it does not trump the anti-discrimination, anti-balkanization norm of the Commerce Clause.

The federal district judge in the recent Arnold case in New York properly acknowledged the importance of Granholm. Nevertheless, the judge held that Granholm’s ban on state discrimination against out-of-staters applied only to state laws regulating producers of alcohol, not laws (such as the one at issue in the recent New York case) that regulated wholesalers or retailers.

The New York judge’s interpretation of Granholm is, I believe, in error.

The Arnold’s Wines case will likely impact current (Texas, California) and future (Illinois?) cases in the battle over retail to consumer shipments and could possibly end up in the Supreme Court, where a favorable decision could potentially open the legislative floodgates for retailers as Granholm did for wineries in 2005.