A Not-So-Supreme Victory

The phrase ‚€œSupreme Court ruling‚€
carries a sense of finality about it, the idea that the wisest jurors in
the land have decided important issues and instructed us lesser mortals
how to behave. Last month‚€™s high court ruling on interstate wine
shipping, however, carried no such authority. The court‚€™s gavel
clobbered both sides with equal force, sort of a high-stakes game of
‚€œWhac-A-Mole.‚€
Wine lovers who muttered ‚€œCommerce Clause‚€ like a mantra and hoped
the Court would grant us immediate rights to pick up the phone and have
our favorite Cabernet delivered to our doors from the winery were
na√Įve, despite the initial rush of media reports that hailed a victory
for wine drinkers and small wineries. So were the wholesalers and
political Philistines who put their faith in the 21st Amendment as
trumping the Commerce Clause.
The Commerce Clause means equality. The 21st Amendment means states‚€™
rights. On the direct shipping issue, these two constitutional clauses
contradict each other. But the Supreme Court could hardly declare the
Constitution unconstitutional.
Instead, the Court threw the debate back to the States, upholding the
21st Amendment. But they also decreed that state laws must be equal,
thereby upholding the Commerce Clause. This threatens the viability of
small wineries in states with farm winery laws, such as New York,
Virginia or Michigan, where the wineries have benefited from favorable
treatment on in-state markets. New York‚€™s Governor George Pataki has
introduced legislation to liberalize out-of-state shipments, while
authorities in Michigan and Indiana are threatening to end all shipping
altogether.
Small wineries in California have little to lose and everything to gain
as the direct shipping fight heats up again in state capitals. Small
wineries elsewhere have much to lose, for even if they are allowed to
maintain in-state privileges, they will now have to compete on a level
playing field with their more famous rivals to the West.
Be careful what you wish for …

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