Bench Memos

Supreme Court Denies Review in Casket Case, Monks’ Victory Stands

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against reviewing Saint Joseph Abbey v. Castille. This means that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey — a significant victory against overcriminalization and unnecessary licensing — will stand.

For decades, the unlicensed sale of a funeral casket in Louisiana has been punishable by heavy fines and up to 180 days in prison. In 2007, the Benedictine monks of Saint Joseph Abbey began manufacturing and selling cypress caskets to support themselves. The caskets were sold for far less than they are at most other funeral homes – sometimes at a quarter of the price. Although the monks perform no other funeral services, they were enjoined from selling the caskets by the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

As Megan McArdle observed, it is “hard to imagine any reason that the state needs to get into regulating the procurement and sale of . . . wooden boxes.” It is especially hard to imagine how a violation of the regulation could possibly justify the heavy-handed sanction of incarceration.

Federal courts are extremely sympathetic to a state’s assessment of what is necessary to ensure public health and safety, and they often find that as long as a state can offer any “rational basis” for a regulation, it will be upheld. In this case, the district court was unable to determine any rational basis whatsoever for Louisiana’s protection of what Professor Jonathan Adler calls a “coffin cartel.”

In March, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court and noted that the deference extended to a state’s defense of a regulation “does [not] require courts to accept nonsensical explanations.”

Louisiana sought Supreme Court review of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, but today’s denial of certiorari means the case is finally over. This is welcome news for the monks, for their lawyers at the Institute for Justice, and for residents of the three states under the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction: Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi.

Other states, however, are not quite as fortunate. A circuit split exists on this question because of the Tenth Circuit’s 2004 opinion in a similar case, Powers v. Harris. The Tenth Circuit covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Until the split is resolved, other federal courts may decide whether they are more persuaded by the logic of the Tenth Circuit or the Fifth Circuit. (Note: In 2002, the Sixth Circuit, in Craigmiles v. Giles, adopted the position that the Fifth Circuit has adopted.)

In the meantime, residents of the Tenth Circuit who do not want to see prison bars should avoid selling wooden boxes.

— Vikrant P. Reddy is policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the foundation’s Right On Crime initiative.

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