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Cold beer getting warm as court weighs state's alcohol laws

August 12, 2015

Waiting nearly eight months for a cold beer would likely send thirsty Hoosiers across state lines for refreshment. But waiting this long for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether Indiana’s alcohol laws are constitutional is no reason to switch to liquor.

The 7th Circuit heard oral arguments Jan. 7, 2015, in the lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition against convenience stores selling beer cold. Since then, liquor store owners and the opposing pharmacies, gas stations and big box retailers have been waiting for a ruling.

Indiana appellate attorneys cautioned against insinuating too much about the amount of time that has passed. The 7th Circuit has a full docket so the judges may be juggling their workload or the panel may simply be taking its time in crafting the opinion. Also, cases that are complex can cause the court to take a bit longer in fermenting a decision.

“Some cases take less time, some cases take a lot longer,” Brian Paul, partner at Faegre Baker Daniels said, noting there is no requirement that circuit judges render opinions in a particular time frame.

The beer case was appealed from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. At the 7th Circuit, the arguments were heard by the three-judge panel of Ann Claire Williams, Diane Sykes and Senior Judge Kenneth Ripple.

Statistics from the U.S. Courts show the 7th Circuit takes an average of 3.2 months to render a decision after oral arguments. The national average among all District courts is 2.3 months.

Still, recent rulings from the 7th Circuit underscore the judges will take the time they need.

The July 2 decision in Corre Opportunities Fund LP et al. v. Emmis Communications Corp., came just shy of seven months after oral arguments. Most notably, the judges took 19 months to render an opinion regarding the corruption case against the former Illinois governor in United States of America v. Rod Blagojevich.

Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote the 23-page opinion in the Blagojevich case. He has a reputation for being a quick writer, but his introduction shed light on the reason for the wait: “…the charges are complex, the trial long, and the issues numerous, an effort to relate many details would produce a book-length opinion.”

How long the 7th Circuit takes does not typically water down the impact or validity of the decision. But the opinion might contain some clues as to why the court took longer than average.

Geoffrey Slaughter, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, said if the final decision is long and includes a thoughtful dissenting or even concurring opinion from one of the judges, that might suggest there was some conflict on the panel. Such a conclusion could inspire the losing party to petition for en banc review.

Indiana’s alcohol laws have been the subject of continued consternation. Attempts in the Statehouse to revamp the statutes have repeatedly failed and eventually inspired convenience store owners to seek relief in federal court.

They filed their complaint in May 2013, charging Indiana’s statutes and regulations which limit the sale of cold beer violate the Equal Protection Clauses in the state and federal constitutions.

In June 2014, Richard Young, the chief judge for the Southern District of Indiana, denied the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction and granted the state’s motion for summary judgment. The District court found the state statute is not unconstitutionally vague and dismissed the Equal Protection claim on the grounds that Indiana treats all businesses that hold a beer dealer’s permit the same whether in an incorporated or unincorporated town.

The convenience stores subsequently filed an appeal with the 7th Circuit.•

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