Four lawsuits filed over US alcohol shipping laws

Four lawsuits have been filed in the US in an attempt to open up restrictive interstate shipping laws following last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee.

The United States Supreme Court, Washington DC

Lawyers hoping to loosen the current laws that restrict interstate booze sales have filed cases in Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey and Texas, which currently do not allow liquor shops to ship wines out of the state, according to Wine-Searcher.com.

The legal team is also pressing a judge in Michigan, who last year issued an order to open up shipping to out-of-state stores pending guidance from the Supreme Court, to enforce his order now the Tennessee case has been determined.

One of the lawyers, Robert Epstein, told the publication his goal was to “enable free trade across the country”, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last month. This case, which was first heard in the Supreme Court in January., overturned protectionist alcohol licensing laws in Tennessee that effectively prevented alcohol retailers not resident in the state from setting up operations.

Branding the law “unconstitutional”, it ruled that states must treat in-state and out-of-state alcohol businesses in the same way. It also called the residency rules for corporations based outside the state who wished to get a retail license “extraordinarily restrictive”.

Many hoped that if the residency requirement in the Tennessee case was overturned, this might open up the possibility of interstate wine sales across the US for the first time since Prohibition was enacted in 1920. (Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the 21st Amendment banned the movement of alcohol between states in the US, which effectively handed each states the right to regulate its own sales and shipment of alcohol).

Tom Wark, executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR) described the ruling as a historic win for both free trade and wine consumers across the country, telling Wine-Searcher that the Supreme Court decision meant that shipping laws in around 20 different states could now be considered unconstitutional and that their laws would need to be changed.

However the NAWR is said to be focussing resources on states that have the greatest chance of success, saying Michigan and Illinois were “closest” to success, but New York and Missouri were other key priorities.

Other states the NAWR intends to pursue include Massachusetts, Washington, Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania (where wine stores are run by the state), Maine, North Carolina and South Carolina.

However there is stiff opposition to any change in the law from local retailer and wholesaler associations, who fear large out-of-state companies coming in and taking market share.

US retailer Total Wines & More is also fighting to expand its footprint in New York through the state’s Supreme Court, after the New York State Liquor Authority refused to allow it to open a second site, in Westchester, based on laws that prevent any individual or business owning more than one liquor license.

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