A Supreme Battle Over Alcohol Laws

The Supreme Court is passing judgment on a case that will impact how your state governs the distribution of alcohol. This is an ideological battle between federalists who believe the states have the power to govern themselves and an all-powerful federal government that wants to strike down state laws they disagree with. The case will have a big impact on how states treat the sale and distribution of alcohol going forward.

Some states have decided to pass laws that restrict the distribution of alcohol to people who have resided in a state for a longer time. States have an interest in keeping people in the state to pay taxes and engage in commerce and it seems rational that a state would want a residency requirement for certain businesses to reward those who don’t flee the state and to ask people coming into the state to stay a while before opening a beer and wine store. There is no doubt that it makes perfect sense for states to protect their own residents, but the question remains as to whether the federal government will allow a state to impose a residency requirement for those who want to distribute and sell certain products.

Alcohol sales fall into a special category because of the long history of prohibition and repeal. History.com has a good history lesson on how prohibition came into place – “The movement for the prohibition of alcohol began in the early 19th century, when Americans concerned about the adverse effects of drinking began forming temperance societies. By the late 19th century, these groups had become a powerful political force, campaigning on the state level and calling for national liquor abstinence. Several states outlawed the manufacture or sale of alcohol within their own borders. In December 1917, the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the ‘manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes,’ was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment achieved the necessary three-fourths majority of state ratification. Prohibition essentially began in June of that year, but the amendment did not officially take effect until January 29, 1920.” This led to a period of time when an illegal trade in alcohol and black-market activity expanded to a point that repeal of prohibition became necessary.

Then came the repeal of the 21st Amendment that included Section 2 that states “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” This seems to empower the states more power over the regulation of alcohol than any other product and makes alcohol as the only consumer product that has two constitutional amendments making the product both illegal and legal.

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Now a dispute over residency requirements has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. BlairThe federal courts struck down a residency requirement that applied to a new resident to Tennessee and that individual was prevented from engaging in distributing alcohol in the state until that person lived in the state a few years longer. This case raises a few interesting questions, but central is the whether the federal government has the power to reach into a state and strike down a state law that they believe unconstitutionally restricts commerce between the states. A residency requirement does not seem to restrict commerce, because it allows all residents to sell alcohol, but they have to have shown a dedication to stay in the state for a longer period of time. One can quibble with the length of time a person should have to be one state to qualify for an alcohol license, but that is why we elect state legislators – to make those decisions.

The big question is whether a state has the power, under the Constitution, to set residency requirements for the sale of alcohol. The laws are clearly reasonable and have a rational basis of encouraging people to stay in the state, yet the court may rely on some obscure precedent relating to the “Commerce Clause” that somehow prevents states from passing these laws. When you have so much controversy, leading to two constitutional amendments, one would think that a state should have more power over that product than other products, but that will be up to Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Bret Kavanaugh. Let’s hope these justices respect federalism.


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