A Battle Well-Picked and Well-Fought

Lee Pender | November 23, 2008

David does best when he can choose the right Goliath.

The Massachusetts volume cap on direct shipment, invalidated last week in Family Winemakers of Calif. v. Jenkins, was a good choice to challenge for at least three reasons. First, there was gold in the legislative record: a sponsor described the bill as “giving an inherent advantage indirectly to the local wineries,” and the cap was openly and carefully calibrated to fall just above anticipated production of the state’s largest winery. Second, the structure of the statutes permitted excising the cap without damaging the state’s basic regulatory system. Third, the statute had the additional feature of requiring wineries to choose between direct shipment and use of local wholesalers, permitting the suit to take a swipe at another dubious restriction deployed by three-tier defenders, with or without a volume cap.

Judge Zobel’s opinion proceeds from her observation that Granholm forbids both direct and indirect ways of subjecting out-of-state wineries, but not local ones, to mandatory use of a local middle tier. Granholm, however, follows precedent in drawing a distinction between state laws that openly (or “facially”) discriminate against interstate commerce and those that pursue some legitimate purpose with only an incidental disproportionate burden on interstate commerce. Courts apply a more stringent test of nearly automatic invalidity to the former, but for the latter give a state more latitude to balance its own objectives against the federal interest in free interstate trade.

Most of the court’s analysis is devoted to showing how the state law came about, which boiled down to a compromise between direct shipment proponents, who wanted a “straight” winery shipment law without a cap, and the wholesalers, who wanted no direct shipment. The middle ground was direct shipment for wineries defined as small, wherever located. If there were no more to it than that, the law could be regarded as facially neutral and therefore vulnerable only if its incidental adverse effect on interstate commerce outweighed whatever benefit the state sought in enacting the statute.

There was a great deal more to it, because the legislative history revealed an intent to set the cap so that no Massachusetts winery would fail to be categorized as small, leaving the producers of most wine sold in interstate commerce deemed large. Judicial principles governing the choice between the strict test , which applies to facially discriminatory statutes, and the more state-friendly balancing test applicable to incidentally discriminatory statutes, contain the interesting wrinkle that a statute whose purpose is shown to be protectionist is treated as facially discriminatory, even if its bare text does not reveal the discrimination. Thus, the intention revealed in legislative history put the Massachusetts statutes in the strict scrutiny category, which would require the state to prove that an important public policy objective could not have been met in any reasonable non-discriminatory way.

According to the state, its objective was to bring the blessings of direct shipment to small producers throughout the nation. Judge Zobel could not see how cutting out the larger wineries served that objective at all, and therefore flunked the statute under both the strict test for facial discrimination and the easier balancing test for upholding incidental discriminatory effects.

Invalidating the statute without requiring a finding of facial discrimination makes the case far more important in other states, where plaintiffs may not be so lucky as to find evidence of discriminatory intent leaping from the legislative record. It also makes the decision itself more robust on appeal, when the state and wholesalers argue that the sponsor’s statements quoted in the opinion were taken out of the context of a true benign intent.

Family Winemakers is also useful to pro-trade advocates in two less direct ways. (1) It explicitly rejects the defendants’ argument that the large wineries were not shut out of direct shipment because wineries of any size that had not sold wine to a wholesaler for six months could ship directly to consumers. While it might seem self-evident that forcing wineries of substantial size to abandon use of wholesalers as a precondition to using direct shipment is, in effect, denying them direct shipment privileges, in future litigation it’s much better to be able to point to a judge’s saying so. (2) In gauging effect on interstate commerce, it put the focus on the large volume of wine excluded or burdened by the statute, rather than (as the state urged) on the small number of producers who are responsible for it. That follows logically from judicial precedent, but again it’s advantageous to have it spelled out in a reported case.

Judge Zobel’s opinion is clear and impressively supported by citations to precedent, aided on both counts by the remarkably well-researched and well-argued case presented by the plaintiffs, but the suit is, of course, not yet over. The state and wholesalers will presumably move for reconsideration, which, in view of the forcefulness of the opinion, represents a dim hope for defendants. Other skirmishes may be more substantial.

What we have so far is an order granting judgment to the plaintiffs and identifying the statutes whose enforcement will be affected by the permanent injunction to be entered. The defendants will surely have much to say about how the injunction should be worded and whether it will be effective during the almost inevitable appeal.

It is important to note that the opinion of the court recognizes, as it must, that the state has the right simply to take the direct shipment statute containing the volume cap (§ 19F) off the books altogether, with the result of shutting down direct shipment for all wineries –i.e., level down. In their original complaint, plaintiffs had asked for a declaration that challenged statutes, including § 19F, were unconstitutional and an injunction against their enforcement. That left some uncertainty whether, in case the court agreed on unconstitutionality, it might grant the wish by invalidating § 19F altogether, leaving no winery with direct shipment, because of the general ban in §§ 2 and 18 on importation or transportation without specific dispensation.

In the summary judgment motion just granted, plaintiffs asked the court to enjoin enforcement of §§ 2, 18 and 19F “against any out-of-state winery engaged in direct shipping to consumers, regardless of the winery’s total annual production or affiliation with a Massachusetts wholesaler.” The court included all three statutes in its memorandum order, a clear indication that the final judgment and permanent injunction will level up by keeping the permissive and licensing parts of 19F in force and enjoining only denial of direct shipment privileges to larger wineries (including those that sell to Massachusetts wholesalers).

Less certain is the issue of a stay on appeal, which the court has discretion to grant or deny. The tenor of the opinion suggests that Judge Zobel will be reluctant to delay the effect of allowing larger wineries to use both wholesalers and direct shipment, though we can expect arguments from defendants that it will ruinously disrupt the orderly regulation of beverage alcohol in the Commonwealth. Moreover, denial of a stay in the district court does not mean the appellants would fail to obtain a stay from the Court of Appeals, which could take a couple of years to decide the case. Ultimately, the legislature can always take another cut at protecting wholesaler interests while appeals are going on, potentially rendering the ruling moot.

Even with questions about when it will become effective and the inability to predict with certainty what an appellate court or legislative assembly will do, Family Winemakers will ripple through all litigation dealing with indirect discrimination against interstate commerce. For pro-trade advocates, that’s cause to celebrate.