Walking Dead: The Fifth Circuit Resurrects Rational Basis Review

For generations, St. Joseph Abbey (Abbey) has constructed wooden caskets to bury its monks, but more recently, the Abbey assembled a lawsuit to bury an unconstitutional law.  After Hurricane Katrina destroyed its timber and rendered its source of income lifeless, the Abbey began to sell caskets to the general public.  While the monks of the Abbey offer no funeral services, they earn their living selling caskets at lower prices than those offered by funeral homes.  Under the Louisiana Embalming and Funeral Directors Act (Act), intrastate sales of caskets to the public may only be made by a state-licensed funeral director and at a state-licensed funeral home.  In 2007, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors (Board) ordered the Abbey not to sell caskets to the public, and Boyd Mothe Sr., a state-licensed funeral director, initiated a complaint against the Abbey.  The Abbey retaliated, filing suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The Abbey asserted that the licensure requirements deny it equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment because the restrictions bear no rational relationship to any valid governmental interest.  The Board countered that the challenged rules, insulating funeral directors from competition, are rationally related to the state’s interest in regulating the funeral profession.  In the alternative, the Board maintained that economic protection of a particular industry is a legitimate state interest.  The district court issued a judgment for the Abbey, affirming that economic protectionism is not a legitimate state interest and finding no rational relationship to consumer protection, public health, or safety.  The state appealed, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “[i]n the interests of federalism and constitutional avoidance,” deferred its decision by certifying the Louisiana Supreme Court to resolve the controversy under Louisiana law.  After the Louisiana Supreme Court denied certification without explanation, the Fifth Circuit addressed the constitutionality of the Act.  The Fifth Circuit held that mere economic protection is not by itself a legitimate governmental purpose and the Act was not rationally related to consumer protection or public health and safety.  St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, 712 F.3d 215 (5th Cir. 2013).