Prohibition, pragmatism, and protectionism

Predicting Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair

Wine retailers seeking to operate in Tennessee argued last week that the state’s highly restrictive condition requiring 10 years of prior residence effectively discriminates against out-of-state retailers. The case, Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair, seems quite simple to us: the Court in Granholm v. Heald addressed the almost identical question in 2005, finding in favor of out-of-state wine producers on the basis of the Dormant Commerce Clause. Since then, two thirds of the personnel of the Court has changed and yet we see similar patterns emerging in the oral argument in Tennessee Wine and Spirits.

In Granholm the Court split 5:4, but not along the usual ideological lines. In the majority were Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer; the dissenters were Stevens, O’Connor, Thomas, and Rehnquist — the dissent encompassed both extremes of the Court. The numbers on the current Court look similar, as the following figure shows.

Supreme Court Oral Argument Prediction for Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair (January 16, 2019)

That Alito and Sotomayor were closely aligned in this case was apparent not just from the numbers but also from the content of the argument. Early in the argument, Alito stepped in to buttress Sotomayor’s arguments and questions of Petitioner, a retailers’ association suing to prevent the state agency from granting licenses to the out-of-state retailers.  Alito asked “what is the — the basis for thinking that the purpose of or a purpose of Section 2 of the Twenty-First Amendment was to authorize the states in this one area, dealing with alcohol, to engage in protectionist activities that wouldn’t be permitted with respect to any other commodity?”

Despite the predictions of our model, we think that Kavanaugh amd Kagan are in agreement in this case. Kavanaugh argued persuasively that the Twenty-First Amendment gave states and localities the power to remain dry, but not to discriminate. Borrowing Kagan’s phrasing, he pointed out that otherwise, “the sky is the limit” in permitted discrimination.

We don’t predict another 5:4 ruling in the Tennessee case. Gorsuch, Breyer, and Kagan (and very briefly, Roberts) all raised concerns regarding the slippery slope of finding for Respondents here, asking what is to stop the Amazon of wine retailers from operating and making the Twenty-First Amendment redundant? But Kagan and Breyer also made similar arguments in challenge to Petitioner, querying what is to stop more and more protectionism if this level of discrimination is permitted. Breyer asked “Suppose you  [require that a]ny liquor store has to use paint made in Tennessee, asphalt made in Tennessee for the parking lot, neon — you know, I can go on.”

Breyer also wrung his hands about not wanting to upset the history of extensive permitted state regulation of these matters, but Granholm also gave him a chance to let these and the pragmatic concerns sway him, and he took the other side.

We think that Kagan and Breyer will rule in favor of Respondent, and only Gorsuch and Thomas (who said nothing, just for a change) are likely to be swayed by Petitioner’s argument, even though Gorsuch is said to be a formalist.

As we have discussed elsewhere, our predictive model of oral argument works better in divided cases than in unanimous or highly lopsided decisions. If the justices mostly agree on the merits of one side, at least a few of them are going fill the vacuum and ask questions of the side they favor.

The clearest sign of how unbalanced we expect this case to be comes not from the justices, but from the advocates. By our calculations, Carter Phillips is the fifth most experienced advocate in the modern era of the Court. He sat down with 10 minutes to spare, after giving a quick conclusion and asking if the justices had any further questions. We do not believe Phillips ran out of arguments; his early exit was a sign of supreme confidence. We trust Phillips’ expert judgment and think those missing 10 minutes are the strongest signal of the likely outcome of the case.

To further examine the back and forth between the justices and the three advocates — the other two being Shay Dvoretzky for Petitioner and Illinois Solicitor General David L. Franklin as amici curiae representing multiple states in support of Petitioner — the next figure shows the cumulative speech episodes for each advocate (in various shades of blue on the bottom) and the justices as a bloc (in orange on top).

The figure shows the Cumulative wordcount in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair in three segments, petitioner, amici and respondent.
Cumulative wordcount in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair (January 16, 2019)

Phillips and Dvoretzky spoke for roughly the same amount of time, around 20 minutes each, and had a similar ratio of words spoken by them versus the justices. The far broader region of the graph for Phillips indicates the much more rapid back-and-forth between the justices and that advocate. Phillips was effectively controlling the argument, in a way that Franklin, and particularly Dvoretzky did not. For instance, when Gorsuch began his less-than-concise invitation to give Phillips “the opportunity” and “one final shot” to convince him on the history, Phillips cut him off effectively but not rudely.

Here is the interaction:

Neil Gorsuch: . . . And I — I just want to give you one more shot —
Carter G. Phillips: Sure.
Neil Gorsuch: — at the — at the history —
Carter G. Phillips: Yeah.
Neil Gorsuch: — and dealing with the Wilson Act and Webb Act and —
Carter G. Phillips: Thank you, Justice Gorsuch.
Neil Gorsuch: — those sorts of things.
Carter G. Phillips: Appreciate the opportunity.

Phillips then went on to give a substantive answer.

In terms of deference given to the advocates, the first few minutes of Dvoretzky’s time were dominated by Sotomayor and Alito, not by the advocate. In contrast, both Franklin and Phillips were able to give extensive introductions before the justices jumped in. Solicitors General get more deference from the justices, and in this case at least, that was also extended to the state Solicitor General, for whom the ratio between advocate time and justice speaking time was the most favorable of the three. We do not expect that this deference will amount to success, Franklin played a poor hand as well as he could, we just note it for interest.

Prediction: 7:2 for Respondent (Blair, Interim Director of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, et al.)

For Respondent: Alito, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, Roberts, Ginsburg (absent from the argument), Kagan, and Breyer

For Petitioner: Gorsuch and Thomas

Most likely the switch: Roberts