Sunday, June 30, 2019

SCOTUS Strikes Down Economic Protectionism in Tennessee

This week, in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers v. Thomas, the Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee ordinance which prohibited new residents from obtaining a liquor store license until they had resided in the state for two years (in a particularly galling twist, they can't renew the license until they have ten years of residency -- even though liquor store licenses have to be renewed annually. Yes, that means there is a seven year no man's land in between.). The vote was 7-2, with Justices Gorsuch and Thomas in dissent.

I want to flag this briefly, and particularly the dissents of Gorsuch and Thomas. To be clear: I firmly believe that good policy and proper legal interpretation are not coterminous categories. The question before the Court was (a) whether laws like this violate the "dormant commerce clause" and (b) whether the special legal regime the Constitution provides for alcohol regulation in the 21st Amendment alters that analysis. I'd have to read the case more carefully to decide where I come down on it, though in my extremely brief browse I think the majority has the better of the argument.

But this nonetheless serves as a good example of a simple point: there is no straight line connection between conservative jurisprudence and economic liberty. In many circumstances, there is a more straightforward left-libertarian alliance against unnecessary government licensing regimes which serve only to obstruct disfavored classes from economic opportunity. Sometimes, conservatives will join them (the majority opinion here was written by Justice Alito); in the right circumstances sometimes one sees a massive cross-party consensus on these issues. But there remain plenty of cases where conservative politics and conservative legal analysis implies propping up economic protectionism and government red tape. Any assumption of a natural alliance between economic freedom and conservatism is a myth.

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