The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to review an opinion of the Sixth Circuit on constitutional limits on states’ ability to regulate the distribution of alcohol beverages. Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Ass’n v. Byrd, No. 18-96.
With the advent of the 21st Amendment in 1933, which turned control of alcohol beverage regulation over to the states, temperance groups insisted on a rigid, three-tier system for the distribution of alcohol. Typically, under state laws a manufacturer of alcohol beverages can only sell to a distributor and it may not have any ownership interest in the distributor. The distributor in turn sells to retailers who sell to the general public. Neither the manufacturer nor the distributor may have any ownership interest in the retailer. Consumers can only purchase alcohol beverages from retailers.
The rise of the internet and direct delivery companies such as Amazon has undermined this rigid distribution system. The State of Michigan amended its statute to permit wineries located in Michigan to sell directly to consumers. Out-of-state wineries, however, could only sell to Michigan distributors. In Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460 (2005), a surprisingly divided Supreme Court held, 5-4, that its anti-discrimination holdings under the Commerce Clause trumped the states’ residual authority under the 21st Amendment. It also held that the direct-sale statute impermissibly discriminated in favor of in-state wineries.
Granholm settled the question of whether states could discriminate against out-of-state manufacturers. It left open the question of whether the Commerce Clause also protected wholesalers and retailers and the lower courts are divided on that point. Granholm clearly held that the three-tier system is not a per se violation of the Commerce Clause. Based on that holding, the Second, Fourth and Eighth Circuits have all held that Granholm does not apply to wholesalers and retailers. The Fifth and Sixth Circuits have reached the opposite result.