Labeling Sotomayor

Lee Pender | June 2, 2009

Although I don’t believe anyone has found a beverage law opinion by Judge Sonia Sotomayor, there’s a good deal of blog traffic related to the fact she did not dissent from Circuit Judge Wesley’s opinion in Swedenburg v. Kelly, a Second Circuit decision famously reversed by the Supreme Court in Granholm v. Heald. As Justice Souter was in the Granholm majority, some wholesalers have already publicly rejoiced that his putative replacement may help swing the balance toward limiting Granholm’s reach.

To understand the significance of Judge Sotomayor’s participation in Swedenburg, it is helpful to examine the context. First, Swedenburg was decided in February 2004, following the law of the circuit as it then existed. The Second Circuit is the source of Battipaglia and other conservative 21st Amendment rulings; precedent strongly supported Judge Wesley’s conclusions. It should be no surprise to an industry that rightly hails Granholm as an innovative stroke profoundly readjusting the balance between the commerce clause and the 21st Amendment that a lower court decision two years earlier did not reach the same result. Second, the Swedenburg decision was pro-commerce in its consideration of the First Amendment issue raised by the New York statutory scheme, striking down a provision that prohibited importation of information about availability of wine at out-of-state wineries, even for lawful purchase. The other two judges on the three-judge Swedenburg panel might have gone along with the result without necessarily holding “strong 21st Amendment” positions or endorsing every aspect of Judge Wesley’s analysis.

As Tom Wark said in his blog, it will be interesting to see if confirmation hearings put direct shipment in the legal news again. It will be even more interesting to see how Justice Sotomayor comes down on implications of Granholm for the second wave of commerce cases.