Supreme Court Strikes Down Tennessee Liquor Law

The case pitted the authority given to states to regulate alcohol sales against the principle that only Congress can regulate interstate commerce.

Wine Bottles In Liquor Store

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a Tennessee law that makes it hard for outsiders to break into the state's liquor sales market. The court voted 7-2 in ruling that a state requirement that someone live in Tennessee for two years to be eligible for a license to sell liquor violates the Constitution.

The outcome was a victory for a family that moved to Tennessee because of their daughter's disability and a national chain with nearly 200 liquor stores in 23 states. The case pitted the authority given to states to regulate alcohol sales in the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition in the United States against the constitutional principle that only Congress, not the states, can regulate interstate commerce.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court that states have considerable power to regulate the sale of alcohol, but they can't discriminate against out-of-state interests. The predominant effect of the residency requirement is to protect Tennessee liquor sellers "from out-of-state competition," he wrote.

In dissent with Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the 21st amendment left the regulation of alcohol to the states. The case began when the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association opposed the issuance of licenses to Doug and Mary Ketchum, who moved to Tennessee from Utah, and the national chain Total Wine Spirits Beer & More for a store in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Ketchums operate Kimbrough Wines & Spirits in Memphis. Their 34-year-old daughter, Stacie, has cerebral palsy and suffered serious respiratory problems in Utah. There were two provisions in play initially, two years of residency before obtaining a license and 10 years in Tennessee before a liquor license can be renewed.

Both residency provisions were struck down by lower courts, and the retailers' association dropped its defense of the longer requirement. The retailers argued that having people in the state for two years made it easier for authorities to do background checks and seize a liquor seller's financial assets if necessary.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia backed the retailers' association, but Tennessee itself had essentially stopped defending the residency requirements.

Arguments in the case took place in January on the 100th anniversary of ratification of Prohibition, the constitutional ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. Prohibition ended in 1933.

The case is Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas, 18-96.