dormant Commerce Clause

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief in Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Byrd argues that Tennessee’s law requiring alcohol retailers to live in the state for two years to receive a license is constitutional.

According to Tennessee Wine & Spirits “[a]t least twenty-one States impose some form of durational-residency requirement for liquor retailers or wholesalers. And many States impose other residency-based requirements on those entities.”

The Twenty-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is famous because it repealed prohibition. The second section, which prohibits the transportation or importation of alcohol into a state in violation of state law, is less well-known. Despite this section’s broad language and the Supreme Court’s repeated affirmation that the states’ three-tier system of regulating alcohol (manufacturers sell to wholesalers; wholesalers sell to retailers; retailers to consumers) is constitutional, the Supreme Court has limited states’ ability to regulate the distribution of alcohol.

The question the Supreme Court will decide in Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Byrd is whether Tennessee’s law requiring alcohol retailers to live in the state for two years to receive a license violates the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause. The dormant Commerce Clause prevents states from “discriminat[ing] against interstate commerce” or “favor[ing] in-state economic interests over out-of-state interests.”

According to Tennessee Wine & Spirits “[a]t least twenty-one States impose some form of durational-residency requirement for liquor retailers or wholesalers. And many States impose other residency-based requirements on those entities.”

In South Dakota v. Wayfair the Supreme Court ruled that states and local governments can require vendors with no physical presence in the state to collect sales tax. According to the Court, in a 5-4 decision, “economic and virtual contacts” are enough to create a “substantial nexus” with the state allowing the state to require collection.  

In 1967 in National Bellas Hess  v. Department of Revenue of Illinois, the Supreme Court held that per its Commerce Clause jurisprudence, states and local governments cannot require businesses to collect sales tax unless the business has a physical presence in the state.

Twenty-five years later in Quill v. North Dakota (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the physical presence requirement but admitted that “contemporary Commerce Clause jurisprudence might not dictate the same result” as the Court had reached in Bellas Hess.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair South Dakota is asking the Supreme Court to rule that states and local governments may require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax. Doing so will require the Court to overrule Quill v. North Dakota (1992), where it held that states and local governments cannot require a business to collect sales tax unless the business has a physical presence in the state.

Based on oral argument the Court is likely to follow one of three paths. It could keep the physical presence test and not overturn Quill. It could overturn Quill and replace (or add to) the physical presence test an economic nexus test (like the South Dakota law which requires out-of-state vendors to collect tax only if they annually conduct $100,000 worth of business or 200 separate transactions annually in the state). Finally, it could overturn Quill and allow states to require all out-of-state vendors to collect sales tax no matter how much (or little) business they do in a state.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair South Dakota is asking the Supreme Court to overrule precedent and hold that states and local governments may require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that states lost $23.3 billion in 2012 from being prohibited from collecting sales tax from online and catalog purchases. 

In 1967 in National Bellas Hess  v. Department of Revenue of Illinois, the Supreme Court held that per its Commerce Clause jurisprudence, states and local governments cannot require businesses to collect sales tax unless the business has a physical presence in the state.

Twenty-five years later in Quill v. North Dakota (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the physical presence requirement but admitted that “contemporary Commerce Clause jurisprudence might not dictate the same result” as the Court had reached in Bellas Hess.

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