US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

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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On February 5, 2018, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an opinion in one of the many false advertising class actions brought against the industry in the past five years.

Penrose v. Buffalo Trace Distillery, E.D. Mo. 4:17-cv-00294-HEA, involves the labeling of Old Charter bourbon. For years, Old Charter sold an 8-year-old version and a 12-year-old version, with their labels very prominently displaying “8” and “12” (respectively) in several places. According to the complaint, in January 2014 Old Charter “8” was re-formulated to use less-aged bourbon, described by the court as “non-age stated” or “NAS” bourbon. The labels, however, continue to prominently display the number “8” in the same manner as the prior label. In addition, while the label previously stated “aged 8 years,” the NAS bourbon’s label states “gently matured for eight seasons.” The court’s opinion catalogues a number of alleged complaints by consumers that they were deceived into purchasing the NAS product on the mistaken belief that the bourbon was still aged for eight years. Significantly, the complaint alleges that the price for Old Charter “8” remained the same after the reformulation.
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