Retail Services & Systems, Inc., dba Total Wine & More v. South Carolina Department of Revenue and ABC Stores of South Carolina

A trial-level court in South Carolina recently issued an opinion upholding the constitutionality of the state’s statutory limitation on the number of retail dealer licenses granted to an individual or corporation.  The plaintiff, Total Wines & More, argued that the state’s limitations on the number of retail dealer licenses it could obtain violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions, and exceeded the state’s police powers.  The court’s decision highlights the unlikelihood of success in challenging such alcohol licensing laws on equal protection and due process grounds due to the application of rational basis scrutiny.

In considering the plaintiff’s claims, the court set forth the due process and equal protection tests, which, in the absence of a fundamental right or suspect classification, both require only a reasonable relationship between the challenged law and a legitimate legislative purpose.  In finding the requisite reasonable relationship, the court noted possible purposes of such licensing limitations, including preventing concentration of power within the liquor industry, preventing monopolies, avoiding indiscriminate price cutting and excessive advertising, and protecting small, independent liquor dealers.  The court also held that the licensing laws did not exceed the state’s police powers, as such licensing is a typical exercise of the police power designed to protect the “morals and welfare of the public.”

The court cited copiously to the laws and cases of other jurisdictions, noting that virtually every court has upheld limitations on the number of licenses against due process and equal protection challenges.

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