Jeff Rowes · September 5, 2021

As part of the Institute for Justice’s 30th Anniversary celebration (1991-2021), our “IJ Works Wonders” series looks back on IJ cases that fundamentally transformed the law and the lives of our clients.

The government should have known better than to mess with a bunch of monks who merely wanted to provide for themselves through honest enterprise.

The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, a century-old Benedictine monastery in Covington, Louisiana, began selling their handmade wooden caskets to support their educational and health care expenses. A state board, however, moved to shut down the monks’ fledgling business before it sold even one casket because it was a crime in Louisiana for anyone but a government-licensed funeral director to sell caskets to the public. The monks and IJ brought suit in federal court challenging the occupational licensing requirement on the ground that this arbitrary restriction served no legitimate public purpose and existed only to funnel money to the funeral-director cartel.

We won at the trial court in 2011 and at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013. In its landmark unanimous decision, the 5th Circuit said, “The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule or the context of its adoption nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation.”

The biggest impact of the monks’ case is that it has become the national standard for analyzing economic-liberty cases. This means that federal and state courts of appeal across the country regularly cite the Saint Joseph Abbey case as the framework for deciding whether the government has violated the right to earn an honest living. This is a key IJ achievement because the long-term goal of our economic liberty litigation is not just to win individual cases, but to shift how courts think about economic rights. In the wake of the Abbey case, courts act much less like rubber stamps and instead are more engaged with the law and facts. For example, the monks’ case was at the heart of major constitutional claims that Wal-Mart brought against Texas over liquor retailing restrictions. There has never been a better time in modern American history to bring an economic liberty case than now, and that is attributable to IJ litigation and the Abbey victory in particular.

Stepping back from the big national picture to IJ cases, the Abbey case is the foundation of our federal and state economic liberty cases. Our goal in federal court is to export the Abbey case across the country by persuading courts of appeals to adopt its framework. For example, we have filed cases in federal court in the funeral industry in Alabama, California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Abbey case is also the foundation of our federal cases in other areas. While we don’t always prevail, we advance the law even when we lose by creating disagreements among the courts about how to analyze economic liberty claims. For example, we lost a teeth-whitening case before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the loss was based on that court’s view that the Abbey case was wrong and that it is essentially impossible for the government to lose. As part of IJ’s long-term legal quest, our goal is to ensure that the Supreme Court will one day have to resolve these disagreements by settling on a definitive approach to economic liberty that advances freedom, and we will be part of that.

Turning to state courts, our economic liberty cases under state constitutions also use the Abbey case as a touchstone. For example, in winning the Patel threading case before the Texas Supreme Court, we argued that the Texas Constitution provided greater protection for economic liberty than the U.S. Constitution and that the Abbey case represented the federal standard. Thus, our victory there achieved greater protections for economic rights under the Texas Constitution. Similarly, our state constitutional cases about health care—for example, our certificate-of-need case in Nebraska and our physician-dispensing case in Texas—use the Abbey case to contrast federal and state approaches to economic-liberty analysis.

In sum, the impact of the Abbey case isn’t measured just in wins, but in how it is revolutionizing the approach courts take to economic liberty cases in state and federal courts. This represents success in IJ’s long term goal of increasing judicial engagement and elevating economic rights to the status of other important rights.

With the legal cloud lifted, the monks now offer an entire line of cypress caskets under the name Saint Joseph Abbey Caskets.

Jeff Rowes is an IJ senior attorney.

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