SCOTUS Puts Final Nail in Louisiana Coffin Case

By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 17, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Benedictine monks are celebrating -- as circumspectly as monks do -- after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Louisiana case against unlicensed coffin-makers.

According to The Associated Press, counsel for the St. Joseph Abbey announced that SCOTUS has refused to hear the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors appeal of the Fifth Circuit's opinion, allowing "entrepreneurs" in all the field of things that contain dead bodies to flourish.

Let's take this opportunity to look back at why the Louisiana government was trying to stop these monks from selling their coffin-wares in the first place.

Louisiana Coffin Conundrum

In a decision in March, the Fifth Circuit had ruled that a state regulation which limited casket sales to licensed funeral directors lacked rational basis, and that it was basically only supported by a need to make sure only funeral directors sell caskets.

The case, St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, revolved around the Benedictine monks of the St. Joseph Abbey -- located just outside New Orleans -- trying to turn a profit by making caskets after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The monks have been making caskets for generations to bury the members of their order, and it seemed like a natural way to use their skills to recoup their losses.

Enter shadowy board of Louisiana funeral directors, who ordered the monks to cease-and-desist casket sales under Louisiana law, as only licensed funeral directors are allowed to sell caskets. The Board pointed to Louisiana's statutory definition of funeral directing, which included selling caskets, as proof that the legislative scheme would not allow the monks to sell their wares. They also argued that the law was legit based on public health concerns.

The Fifth Circuit wasn't convinced, and based on the fact that Louisiana doesn't in any other way regulate coffins or caskets (you don't even have to bury a body in a casket in the Big Easy) there was no legitimate state interest in the coffin regulation.

SCOTUS Takes Vow of Silence

After their defeat in the Fifth, the Board petitioned SCOTUS for appeal based on a new argument: economic restrictions are legitimate if their purpose is to protect consumers. They banked this argument on the precedent in Powers v. Harris, a Tenth Circuit case where the Court acknowledged the state's police power in "dishing out special economic benefits" to in-state industries.

Unfortunately for the Board, and us, SCOTUS denied cert. in St. Joseph Abbey, allowing the Fifth Circuit to join the Ninth and Sixth Circuits in striking down such similar regulations as illegitimate.

Since we've been denied Justice Scalia extolling the rich history of the Benedictine monks, we'll end on a joke:

What does a Louisiana Benedictine monk eat for lunch?

A cloyster po' boy!

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