Victory for the Monks in Federal Court of Appeals

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 24, 2012

Arlington, Va.—The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey declared victory once again after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a blistering opinion stating that the five-year campaign of the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to prevent the monks from selling their handmade caskets was either unconstitutional or totally unauthorized by Louisiana law. The federal appellate court took the unusual step of asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to weigh in on whether Louisiana’s funeral law actually grants the state board the power to stop casket retailing. If the answer is yes, then the law is unconstitutional. If the answer is no, then the state board has been acting lawlessly against the monks and other entrepreneurs for years.

Read the Opinion Here

The 5th Circuit left no doubt about the invalidity of the state board’s primary constitutional argument that industry insiders and government may team up to pass laws that suppress competition and clobber consumers: “neither precedent nor broader principles suggest that mere economic protection of a pet industry is a legitimate governmental purpose.” The Court was equally harsh in rejecting the state board’s argument that judges in economic liberty cases are supposed to rubber stamp whatever the government does: “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 naked transfers of wealth.”

“This decision is a total vindication for the monks and a complete repudiation of the state board,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the monks. “After losing twice, the state board and its friends in the funeral industry have one last hope: The Louisiana Supreme Court rules that the board has had the authority to go after the monks, the 5th Circuit then strikes the law down and the state board appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Bullock argued the case in June before the 5th Circuit.

“Our prayers have been answered,” said Abbot Justin Brown, head of Saint Joseph Abbey. “Our confidence never wavered that justice would be done, and we are especially gratified that the Court’s decision will protect the economic liberty of other entrepreneurs in Louisiana and around the country.”

Jeff Rowes, also a senior attorney with IJ, said, “We expect the Louisiana Supreme Court to rule that Louisiana law authorizes the state board to regulate casket sales. The Legislature twice rejected the Abbey’s effort to amend the funeral law, making clear that the Legislature has always understood the law to include the power to regulate the monks and other casket retailers. Occupational licensing laws are often pernicious precisely because legislatures write them so broadly, giving state boards enormous arbitrary power over the economic liberty of Americans.”

Rowes added, “If Louisiana’s funeral law never authorized what the state board has been up to, then its members—almost all of whom are funeral directors who benefited financially from monopolizing the casket market—are going to have to answer serious questions about why they illegally spent so much time and taxpayer money causing needless misery to a tiny community of Benedictine monks and other casket entrepreneurs.”

Deacon Mark Coudrain, who is a plaintiff and who manages the Abbey’s casket-making project, said, “America is as much a land of economic liberty as it is a land of religious liberty. The Court recognized that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t let the government prevent monks or anyone else from earning an honest living unless there is a really good reason, the kind of reason that was nowhere to be seen here.”

The federal case will now be stayed pending an answer from the Louisiana Supreme Court on the question that the 5th Circuit posed. The 5th Circuit has set January 22, 2013, as a follow-up deadline.

Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of IJ, added, “The decision today is a model of judicial engagement—a court addressing constitutional questions concerning economic liberty by looking at the evidence, looking at the law, and not paying excessive deference to the government. For too long, courts resolving these sorts of constitutional cases have been so deferential that judicial review has actually seemed closer to judicial abdication. But courts can be engaged and this decision proves it.”