The Supreme Court delivered several high-profile rulings this summer on issues including partisan gerrymandering and the census citizenship question. A lesser-known case, Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas, will also have national implications as states continue to update their Prohibition-era regulations.
Under Tennessee law, business owners who wanted to sell liquor had to be state residents for two years before applying for a license. But on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that this ordinance violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In a resounding 7-2 opinion, Justice Samuel Alito rebuked the petitioner’s argument that such a law was permissible under the 21st Amendment:
Section 2 [of the 21st Amendment] allows each State leeway to enact measures to address the public health and safety effects of alcohol use and other legitimate interests, but it does not license the States to adopt protectionist measures with no demonstrable connection to those interests.
In other words, Tennessee’s liquor regulation wasn’t about health and safety; it was about money. And the Court struck it down.
Few (besides liquor lobbyists) were willing to defend the restriction. Even the state of Tennessee wouldn’t touch it, conceding the law was most likely unconstitutional.
TWSRA v. Thomas was just the most high-profile example of successful reform. Liquor liberalization is happening at the state level too:
- Alabama gave greater autonomy to localities interested in allowing Sunday sales by removing the state legislature from the approval process.
- Wisconsin is removing the cap on liquor sales at bars, restaurants, and stores that offer mixology classes and taste testing.
- Utah, the only state that tops Pennsylvania for the most stringent alcohol laws, is allowing beer with 5% ABV to be sold in retail stores—reversing a decades old law that limited retail beer sales to 3.2% ABV.
Across the country, states are realizing the economic benefits of leaving Prohibition-era laws behind in the history books. Even Pennsylvania municipalities are getting in on the action.
This past May, 19 municipalities voted to uncork the bottle and ditch their designation as a dry town. But our state remains mired in its Prohibition past. We could take a serious step towards economic freedom with Sen. Patrick Stefano’s proposal which would create a “spirit expanded permit.” Currently, liquor licenses for hotels and restaurants allow for bottled wine to be sold but not a handle of vodka. Under Sen. Stefano’s proposal, these establishments could apply for a permit to add bottled spirits to their shelves, increasing customer convenience.
The Supreme Court’s decision, along with state and local changes, show that archaic liquor laws are kicking the keg. Let’s hope Pennsylvania’s state government can tap into that momentum and bring greater prosperity to all Pennsylvanians.