Federal Judge Rules Massachusetts Direct-Shipping Laws Are Unconstitutional

Decision follows similar actions in Ohio and Florida; shipments will be permitted until legislature acts
Oct 7, 2005

U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro signed an order yesterday declaring that Massachusetts' laws on direct-to-consumer shipments of wine are unconstitutional.

Under the state's current system, Massachusetts residents may receive shipments of wine from wineries within the state, but not from producers outside its borders. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that similar laws in New York and Michigan were discriminatory and therefore violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause; the majority opinion pronounced that states must treat all wineries equally when it comes to direct shipments.

On May 12, 2005, immediately before the Supreme Court ruling, two Massachusetts consumers and Stonington Vineyards in Connecticut filed a suit against the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (MABCC) in an effort to overturn the state's ban on interstate shipments.

The District Court's order enjoins the state from enforcing its current laws, but it does not lay out guidelines for how direct shipments in the state should be handled. "Judge Tauro's order creates a need for legislative and regulatory action concerning the direct shipment of wine," said MABCC chairman Eddie Jenkins in a statement. However, a spokesperson in the office of the state treasurer told Wine Spectator, "Technically, after the judge's decision, all shipments are allowed."

Now the state legislature must pass a new bill to either allow residents to order wine from licensed wineries in any state or to ban wineries in Massachusetts from shipping, to make the state's laws consistent with the Supreme Court decision.

Federal judges issued similar rulings this summer in Ohio and Florida, declaring their shipping laws unconstitutional. The district court for Ohio ordered that consumers be allowed to order directly from all wineries until new legislation or a rule change is enacted. Bills both for and against direct shipping have been introduced in the legislature. But the Florida decision did not specify conditions under which residents could order wine, and the state's next legislative session isn't scheduled to begin until March 2006.

At the time the Massachusetts order was issued, state Sen. Michael Morrissey (D), who heads the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, was in the process of drafting a bill that would ban all direct shipments. "We've got language; it's just being tweaked at this point," said Ramon Soto, Morrissey's legislative aide. "So the judge did leave the door open for us to legislate, and we're trying to do that on the fly." Even before the bill's introduction, however, local media began criticizing the move in editorials.

Alexander Tanford, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law who has worked with Indianapolis-based attorney Robert Epstein on the Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida lawsuits, doesn't expect an immediate solution. He told Wine Spectator, "My last conversation with the attorney general's office was that there were seven bills in the legislature, whose session expires Nov. 15, and he was doubtful anything would happen this session."

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