Your Cheat Sheet to the Upcoming Supreme Court Decision on Wine

A decision is expected soon; here are possible outcomes and repercussions from the biggest case concerning alcohol in 14 years

Your Cheat Sheet to the Upcoming Supreme Court Decision on Wine
Are they discussing wine inside? The Supreme Court is expected to issue its final decisions of this term this week. (istockphotos)
Jun 20, 2019

Updated June 24: The Supreme Court did not release an opinion for Tennessee Retailers v. Blair today. The justices are expected to do so later this week.

Next Monday, June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down an opinion on Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Zackary Blair et al, potentially the biggest case involving wine since Granholm v. Heald in 2005, which struck down bans against out-of-state direct shipping by wineries. The case at hand deals with the constitutionality of Tennessee's residency requirement for alcohol retailers, but some are hoping for—or dreading—a broad ruling with larger consequences for how Americans buy wine. Here's what you need to know.


For comprehensive analysis and background information on this case, see: "Will the Supreme Court Upend Wine Laws?" and "Supreme Court Hears Challenges to Wine Law."


Possible outcome: The Supreme Court rules in favor of the petitioner in totality.
Consequences: If the court says that both Tennessee's two-year and 10-year residency requirements are legitimate under the 21st Amendment, state governments will maintain wide latitude to structure their liquor laws however they want, regardless of the potential for the kind of economic protectionism that the Commerce Clause was put in place to prevent. Under this scenario, proponents of allowing wine retailers to ship to consumers across state lines have little chance of advancing other cases that would strike down bans on out-of-state retailer shipping in states that allow in-state retailer shipping.

Possible outcome: The Supreme Court rules in favor of the petitioner, but only partially.
Consequences: The court could allow Tennessee's two-year residency requirement to stand on account of it being a legitimate way for the state to maintain an orderly liquor market, but strike down its 10-year requirement, claiming that it's blatant economic protectionism. On its face, this would have little impact on other state laws, including retailer shipping, but it would depend how the opinion is written and what arguments are used to strike down one requirement but not the other.

Possible outcome: The Supreme Court rules in favor of the respondents, but issues a narrow ruling.
Consequences: The court could write a carefully worded opinion stating that, while Tennessee's laws cannot stand under the Commerce Clause because they unfairly discriminate against out-of-state business interests, states still have broad powers under the 21st Amendment to structure their liquor laws how they want, with the aims of temperance and an orderly market. This would also have little immediate effect on retailer shipping, but could leave the door open to such a case in the future.

Possible outcome: The Supreme Court rules in favor of the respondents, and issues a broad ruling.
Consequences: The court could decide that the Commerce Clause outweighs section 2 of the 21st Amendment in most cases, meaning states have much more limited powers to erect any barriers to out-of-state business interests with their liquor laws. The constitutionality of numerous state laws, including other residency requirements as well as shipping restrictions, would come under question. For proponents of retailer direct shipping, this is the best-case scenario.

Possible outcome: The Supreme Court dismisses the case.
Consequences: This is the most unlikely outcome, but the justices could decide that the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association is not the right party to bring this case forward. Indeed, the actual state of Tennessee opted out of the suit, and reportedly hadn't been enforcing the residency requirements in several years anyway. The court might rule that the state should be the petitioner to defend its own law.

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