US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

For those who follow developments in the law and craft brewing with equal passion, every year has its share of substantial issues. This year has been no exception, with a pending Supreme Court case; a substantial upswing in federal trade practice enforcement activity; a massive rewrite of US Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) labeling and

The “final word” may be in sight in a long-running dispute over state residency requirements imposed on applicants for retail alcohol beverage licenses as well as more fundamental questions about state powers under the 21st Amendment.

As anticipated last July in the Alcohol Law Advisor blog, a single sentence order of the US Supreme Court issued on September 27 granted a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association (Tennessee Retailers) requesting the high court to review lower court decisions that invalidated Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement for retail license applicants.

Earlier this year, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reviewed the Tennessee law at issue and held that, “a three-tier system can still function” without the two-year durational residency restriction imposed by Tennessee. The 6th Circuit quoted a 1984 Supreme Court decision: “The central purpose of the [Twenty-first Amendment] was not to empower States to favor local liquor industries by erecting barriers to competition.” The court went on to analyze the Tennessee restrictions and found that they violate the dormant commerce clause, a legal concept designed to prevent states from engaging in economic protectionism.
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Two recent developments reinforce my expectation that the Supreme Court will need to clarify the scope of its 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision within the next few years.

Granholm struck down state restrictions on the interstate sale and shipment of wine by wineries, where the state permitted in-state wineries to engage in such direct-to-consumer sales activities but withheld that privilege from out-of-state wineries. According to that decision, such facially-discriminatory laws are virtually per se unconstitutional under the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause, and are not saved by the additional power that states have over alcohol sales under the 21st Amendment. The Granholm court also referred to the three-tier system as “unquestionably legitimate.”

In the years since Granholm, lower federal courts have wrestled with the question of whether or not the Commerce Clause’s non-discrimination principle is limited to state laws imposing different rules on in-state versus out-of-state producers and products. Decisions by several Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Arnold’s Wines, 2009) and the Eighth Circuit (Southern Wine, 2013), have concluded that only those state laws discriminating against out-of-state producers or products face the high level of scrutiny mandated by Granholm. Others, including the Fifth Circuit (Cooper II, 2016) and the Sixth Circuit (Byrd, 2018), have concluded that state laws regulating the wholesale- and retail-tiers remain subject to vigorous Commerce Clause scrutiny. Notably, however, the Fifth and Sixth Circuit opinions also suggest that the outcome of a challenge to a state law regulating the wholesale- or retail-tier may depend on the type of law challenged, and both involved residency requirements for licensees, not laws directly regulating the sale and shipment of alcohol.
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In an article published by The New Brewer, Marc Sorini discusses five issues most likely to have a meaningful impact on craft brewers in the coming years, including:

  1. The Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act’s (CBMTRA) new tiered excise tax rate structure, its extending benefits to foreign producers, and its authorization for brewers

On February 21, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit published its opinion in Byrd v. Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, No. 17-5552. The decision, which includes a partial dissent, affirms a Middle District of Tennessee decision finding that the “durational-residency” (residency) requirements imposed by Tennessee law for alcohol beverage retail licensees are unconstitutional under the “dormant” Commerce Clause.

Tennessee law requires an applicant for a retail license to have been a resident of Tennessee for at least the two-year period immediately preceding the submission of the license application. For corporate license applicants, the two-year requirement applies to any officer, director or stockholder of the corporation. Moreover, to renew such a license the law requires Tennessee residency for at least ten consecutive years.

Two prospective retail applicants that did not meet the two-year residency requirement, notably including the Tennessee affiliate of Total Wine Spirits & Beer, sought licenses. Expecting litigation, the Tennessee Attorney General filed a declaratory judgement action in state court seeking to have the residency requirements declared constitutional. The action was removed to federal court, and the Middle District of Tennessee found the requirements unconstitutional.


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