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An Unfortunate Direct Shipping License Clarification in Texas

Wineries applying for a Texas Direct Wine Shipper’s Permit or renewing their existing permit must now pay a surcharge of $160 in addition to the $75 annual permit fee. Currently the Direct Shipper’s permit is renewed annually. However, beginning January 1, 2009 all Direct Shipper licenses will be valid for two years. Applicants will have to pay license fees and surcharges for 2 years totaling $470 when applying for a permit in 2009. The Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission added significant surcharges to a wide range of licenses affecting both in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Annie Bones, State Relations – Wine Institute

Indiana Still Standing on Their Face

On September 11th, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal said that they will not rehear an appeal concerning the original opinion of the Court in Indiana. The denial to rehear the case confirms that currently it is legally within the power of the State of Indiana to require wineries to ship wine to Indiana consumers only if an initial face-to-face transaction occurs. According to the Family Winemakers of California, this was “due to the fact that there was an insufficient evidentiary record to demonstrate that such a provision discriminated against interstate commerce”. Since a rehearing was denied, the only step remaining for Baude v. Heath would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Little Knowledge Is Not Enough: Evidentiary Burdens In On-Site Cases

The August 7th decision of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Baude v. Heath has been characterized as a loss in the fight against on-site purchase requirements. Indeed, the opinion leaves Indiana’s initial personal visit requirement in place. That is not, however, the whole story.

It’s important to keep in mind in reading the opinion that the Court of Appeals is affirming the lower court’s granting of summary judgment against the state on one point and reversing it on another. That is, the district court had decided no trial was necessary because uncontested facts established the unconstitutionality of both the wholesale licensee ban and the initial on-site visit requirement. The appellate court agreed with the former conclusion and disagreed with the latter.

Statutes that openly discriminate against out-of-state wineries are almost always unconstitutional and provide fit subjects for summary judgment. Statutes without openly discriminatory provisions, but whose effect in practice is to impose a greater burden on out-of-state wineries than on local wineries, may be unconstitutional, depending (in the locution of the leading case) on whether the burden is “clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.”

That determination of excess is at the heart of the 7th Circuit opinion. The appellate court had little trouble in concluding that the kinky ban on shipment by wineries that had direct distribution rights anywhere provided virtually no benefits, except to wholesalers, and was substantially burdensome. Because uncontested facts in the district court demonstrated exclusion of a substantial number of out-of-state sellers, the plaintiffs had met their burden of showing discriminatory harm to interstate commerce, shifting the obligation to produce evidence to the defendants. The state and wholesalers had offered only one intelligible counterargument –the claim that requiring commerce to go through a local middle tier makes it easier to monitor sales and collect state excises. We can keep Baude v. Heath in the column of cases that do not consider that claim a substantial justification for demonstrated burdens on commerce.

In the other (and more important) half of the 7th Circuit opinion, the same burden-benefit analysis reached a different conclusion with respect to the supposed economic consequences of Indiana’s requirement that the consumer travel to the winery site before receiving the first direct shipment order. Faced with a contention that such a burden is inherently excessive, the chief judge offered some unvarnished advice to plaintiffs’ counsel: “It is impossible to tell whether a burden on interstate commerce is [excessive] without understanding the magnitude of both burdens and benefits. . . . . Exact figures are not essential (no more than estimates may be possible)[,] and the evidence need not be in the record if it is subject to judicial notice, but it takes more than lawyers’ talk to condemn a statute . . . .” In other words, you can’t litigate a burdening case as if it were a case of overt facial discrimination. See Notes on Wine Distribution, pages 8-10, for my discussion of that point and of Cherry Hill Vineyard (which was cited in Baude) and similar cases.

Regarding judicial notice (which occurs when a court accepts something, such as a tide table, as true from published sources, without live testimony), courts seldom take notice of controversial facts. That point came up when the chief judge, sounding a bit offended by plaintiffs’ argument that there was no point in having a face-to-face screening system because determined underage purchasers would defeat or circumvent it, declined to take judicial notice of propositions they advanced in support. Plaintiffs cited some studies and attempted to use an on-line ID check provider’s advertising to show on-site screening is unnecessary. The appellate court wasn’t having it and noted that “it would be awfully hard to take judicial notice that in-person verification with photo ID has no effect on wine fraud and therefore flunks the interstate commerce clause.”

Thus, although delivery requirements involve face-to-face proof of age, Baude stands for the proposition that plaintiffs would have to prove that carrier screening undercuts the enforcement benefit of the initial winery site requirement. The appellate opinion refers to Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Ass’n, a case involving a specific tobacco-regulating statute, as forbidding states to require carriers to check age of persons receiving intoxicating liquor. That is, I believe, an egregiously wrong reading of the case (see blogging on both sides of the issue here), but the opinion does not rely on it. Rather, it describes the face-to-face transaction between carrier employee and recipient of the shipment as facially inferior to age screening at a winery, to a degree that allows the state to treat the former as inadequate. As with economic effects, plaintiff evidence was, in the court’s view, simply absent on the efficacy of at-delivery age screening: “Given the state of this record, and the state of the empirical literature, we know very little.” The take-away is that before you can knock down a duly enacted state statute, you need to know –and show– rather a lot about its discriminatory effects.

The primary importance of Baude is to add weight to an already substantial body of judicial opinion that suits based on a facially neutral law’s burdensome effects on interstate commerce relative to local commerce have to be tried quite differently from suits like Granholm, which was based on overt and explicit discrimination against interstate commerce. The case does not say that the face-to-face law would prove constitutional in a properly presented case, only that it was wrong to conclude that its unconstitutionality was so clear as to require no presentation of quantitative evidence on its burdens.

Reversing a grant of summary judgment does not require that the lower court enter summary judgment for the other side. Rather, it provides guidance to the district court as to evidentiary requirements if the case goes on to trial, and leaves the statute in place if there are no further proceedings below. The plaintiffs’ burden of proof in Baude is substantial but not unsupportable. It ain’t necessarily over.

7th Circuit Reverses Indiana Face to Face Ban

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals made an important decision yesterday regarding face-to-face transactions when shipping wine directly to Indiana consumers. After Indiana initially passed its direct shipping laws to comply with Granholm, the face-to-face requirement was successfully challenged in August of 2007. However, yesterday’s decision will eventually reverse the face-to-face clause.

None of the plaintiffs contends that Indiana’s law has led him to buy more wine from Indiana and less from other states. The law simply shifts sales from smaller wineries (in all states, including Indiana) to larger wineries (all of which are located outside Indiana). The Indiana Winegrowers Guild has filed a brief as amicus curiae opposing the face-to-face clause, which the Guild maintains has made it unduly difficult for its members to ship their wine direct to consumers. But if what the Guild says is
true, then the statute—although bad economically for Indiana’s wineries—must be sustained against a challenge under the commerce clause. Favoritism for large wineries over small wineries does not pose a constitutional problem, and the fact that all Indiana wineries are small does more to show that this law’s disparate impact cuts against in-state product than to show that Indiana has fenced out wine from other jurisdictions.

The judgment of the district court with respect to the wholesale clause is affirmed, and with respect to the face-to-face clause is reversed. The case is remanded for the entry of a judgment consistent with this opinion.

We expect to receive clarification from the lower court or from the Indiana ABC on how current and future permit holders can comply with the existing statutes. We’ll update you here as we receive more information.

Rhode Island and Alabama: Let My Pinot Go!

As legislative sessions continue to progress across the country, more and more legislative bills concerning direct shipments of wine are being considered. If the bills mentioned in this post pass, two states will change from being prohibited states to permit states. The last state to change from a prohibited state to a permit state was Indiana, and that turned out to be a little messy. The bills for Rhode Island and Alabama are straight forward and fair – let’s hope they make it through the process.

If HB 520 or its companion SB 412 in Alabama, and S 2125 in Rhode Island pass, they would allow for any licensed wine producer, supplier, importer, wholesaler, distributor or retailer to apply for a direct shipper license ($100 initial fee; $50 per year thereafter) that would allow them to ship up to 24 cases of wine per year to an of-age resident of the state, as long as the resident is not located in a dry area. Sales and excise taxes must be paid annually.

An Accident On The Way To Court

The February 26, 2008 decision by an Arizona federal district court in Black Star Farms LLC v. Oliver supports an in-person purchase requirement, one of the principal legislative attacks on the level-field principle enunciated in Granholm.

In-person purchase as a precondition to direct shipment solves a fundamental political problem for the middle tier. Although Granholm allows states to eliminate discrimination against interstate direct shipment by forbidding in-state shipment, pursuing that “level down” strategy requires extravagant expenditure of political capital, because it constitutes a death sentence for a significant fraction of local wineries. Thus, wholesaler trade associations are faced with reconciling survival of direct shipment for local wineries with the core objective of forcing wineries in other states to go through three tiers, a conceptual problem after Granholm.

The solution is the “accident of geography” theory, which contends that the impracticality of, e.g., an Arizona consumer’s visiting a Yakima Valley winery to place an order for a wine advertised on the Internet, compared to the convenience of visiting an Arizona winery for the same purpose, does not discriminate against interstate commerce. The Black Star court, like a New York federal district court in Buy Right, Inc. v. Boyle and a Tennessee federal district court in Jelovsek v. Bresden, appears to have bought the theory; federal district courts in the Kentucky case, Cherry Hill Vineyards, LLC v. Hudgins, and the Indiana case, Baud v. Heath, rejected it. Appeals are reportedly under way in the fourth, sixth and seventh federal circuits; if the plaintiffs appeal in Black Star, the ninth circuit will also be involved.

At first impression, the wholesalers’ argument does not seem logical. With respect to governmental restrictions, the Commerce Clause is supposed to provide equal access to markets for interstate commerce originating in any location. True, it does not require states to neutralize natural effects of geography, such as the greater cost of shipping from a distant point, but the trade restriction in question arises from the legislative pen, not from geography itself. For legislation, the Commerce Clause supports location parity by voiding state enactments with substantial discriminatory effects, including the effect of leveraging location advantages of local businesses against distant competitors.

Ironically, the court in Black Star appears to have recognized that aspect of the Commerce Clause, as it cited a 1994 Supreme Court case on the subject, C & A Carbone, Inc. v. Clarkstown, which invalidated a facially neutral city ordinance requiring all nonhazardous solid waste received and processed in the town to be deposited at the defendant township’s transfer station. The fatal flaw of the Clarkstown ordinance was that in practice it favored local waste management business to the exclusion of all non-local competition, which sounds pretty similar to a three-tier requirement for out-of-state businesses, but the Black Star court decided not to follow that precedent for reasons that are difficult to divine in its opinion.

There is, nevertheless, a solid basis for the anti-trade result in Black Star and other recent cases, which is widely (and perhaps erroneously) understood as endorsement of a geographic accident defense to Granholm-based suits. If there were only one message I’d want readers of these blogs and Notes on Wine Distribution to take away from discussion of Granholm, it would be the enormous evidentiary difference between a facial discrimination case like Granholm itself and a de facto discrimination case like Black Star. The latter category, which includes challenges to volume caps as well as to on-site limitations, requires much more extensive preparation, with economic expert testimony, to satisfy the plaintiffs’ substantial burden of proof. The Black Star judge underlines that point in refusing to reach the same result as Hudgins and Baude: “However, Plaintiffs proffer no evidence to suggest that such a limited exception, applicable to both in-state and out-of-state wineries, erects a barrier to Arizona’s wine market that in effect creates a burden that alters the proportional share of the wine market in favor of in-state wineries, such that out-of-state wineries are unable to effectively compete in the Arizona market.” Providing the kind of evidence the court would have to see before invalidating a facially neutral statute adds something like $150,000 on top of all the other costs of the litigation, which should be a sobering, but not surprising, fact for enthusiasts of law reform by litigation, and especially for those who think Granholm provides a lay-down slam in direct shipment cases.