Appellate Court Issues Landmark Ruling in Favor of Louisiana Monks

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 20, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Today, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous final decision in favor of the casket-making monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, setting up what could become a historic clash at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals squarely rejected Louisiana’s argument that it was constitutional to enact a law forbidding anyone but a government-licensed funeral director from selling caskets, especially if the only purpose of the law is to make funeral directors wealthier by limiting competition.

With today’s decision, there is now a decisive disagreement among the federal courts of appeal on one of the most important unresolved questions in constitutional law: Does the U.S. Constitution allow the government to pass economic regulations with no public benefit solely to enrich special interests at the expense of would-be competitors and consumers? The Supreme Court’s primary duty is to resolve such disagreements. Louisiana has 90 days to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review.


This case arose when the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey, a century-old Benedictine monastery in Covington, La., began to sell their handmade caskets in late 2007 to support the monks educational and health-care expenses. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors moved to shut down the 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 brought suit in federal court on the ground that this arbitrary restriction served no legitimate public purpose and existed only to funnel money to the funeral-director cartel.

The 5th Circuit’s landmark decision—one of only a handful of federal appellate decisions since the New Deal to protect economic liberty—will benefit millions of Americans across the country struggling to earn an honest living under the weight of government licensing rules that create barriers to entry and suppress competition. In a nutshell, the 5th Circuit—which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—held that laws amounting to “naked transfers of wealth” to politically favored insiders are unconstitutional. By contrast, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law in Oklahoma in 2004, finding no constitutional problem with its conclusion that “dishing out special economic benefits” to industry insiders was the “national pastime” of state and local governments.

Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represents the monks, said, “This opinion is a total vindication for the monks and a complete repudiation of the State Board’s five-year campaign to deny the monks their constitutional right to sell their handmade caskets.”

Jeff Rowes, also a senior attorney with the Institute, added, “This important precedent is a message to lawmakers and lobbyists that the courts are watching their often unholy unions. This decision will also allow others across the country to defend their economic liberty by bringing constitutional cases to the countless laws and regulations that irrationally harm entrepreneurs.”

Abbot Justin Brown, who heads the monastic community, said, “Since Saint Benedict commanded monks to support themselves with the labor of their own hands 1600 years ago, monks have always been entrepreneurs, and now the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey have the economic liberty to sell our handmade caskets without being branded criminals.” He added, “We welcome the prospect of going to the Supreme Court because we have always believed that this case is about more than just us monks. It’s about economic liberty for all Americans and we are prepared to defend that in the highest court in the land.”

Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute, added,“The Fifth Circuit correctly rejected economic protectionism as a legitimate state interest, characterizing Louisiana’s law as ‘economic protection of the rulemakers’ pockets.’ Occupational licensing laws are often terrible precisely because established businesses work with regulators to completely restrict competition and shut out new entrants to the market.”

The 5th Circuit also rejected Louisiana’s argument that virtually any justification, no matter how imaginary and fantastical, was sufficient to uphold a law from constitutional attack: “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.”

Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute, said, “The opinion is a model of judicial engagement, correctly recognizing both the vital interest in protecting individual liberty and the limits to the judicial deference owed to legislatures.”