Federal Appeals Court Victory: Putting the Nails in Louisiana’s Coffin Cartel

November 20, 2012

The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana are hammering away with renewed purpose after another major legal victory for economic liberty. As Liberty & Lawreaders will remember, the brothers build simple wooden caskets to honor St. Benedict’s rule that monks should put food on their table through the labor of their own hands. Unfortunately, this expression of faith and industriousness was a crime in Louisiana, which forbade anyone but a state-licensed funeral director from selling a casket.

On October 25, 2012, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Louisiana’s five-year campaign to stop the brothers from selling their caskets was either unconstitutional or an abuse of power unauthorized by state law. This decision affirms the monks’ July 2011 victory in the federal trial court.

Besides keeping the monks in business, this victory accomplished two strategic goals for the Institute for Justice that will affect constitutional law across the country. First, the court rejected Louisiana’s primary constitutional argument that it is legitimate for the government to enact laws with no public purpose, but instead simply to protect industry cartels such as funeral directors from competition. There is now a decisive disagreement on this important issue among the federal courts of appeal, making the monks’ case the perfect vehicle for taking the question of illegitimate economic protectionism to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Second, the decision was a model of judicial engagement. For too long, courts considering economic liberty cases have been too deferential to government. In arguments in the trial court and before the court of appeals, Louisiana pointedly insisted that if the judges were not convinced by the government’s arguments, then they were duty-bound to invent their own justifications for upholding the challenged law. But in ruling for the monks, the court of appeals expressly stated that there are limits to judicial deference, that evidence matters in economic liberty cases, and that citizens should prevail when they refute the government’s case. This decision is a roadmap for other citizens and other courts in economic liberty challenges to come.

As significant as this decision is, the case is not yet over. In an unusual twist, the federal court of appeals asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to answer a narrow question: Did the state funeral board actually have the legal authority to regulate the monks’ casket sales in the first place? If the answer is no, then the monks win because the funeral board never had the power it claimed. If the funeral board did have the statutory power to regulate the monks, then the exercise of that power was unconstitutional. Either way, the monks win.

We expect the Louisiana Supreme Court to rule that the funeral board had the power it asserted for the past five years and thus the federal court will strike the law down. From there, Louisiana and its friends in the funeral industry may decide to take their cause to a higher power—the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the monks will serve their higher power, and their customers, by crafting and selling some of the most beautiful caskets in Louisiana.

Jeff Rowes and Scott Bullock are IJ senior attorneys.

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