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Monks, Morticians, and a Casket Racket

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Will this be the weirdest set of facts to fall on the Supreme Court docket this term?

Our own Robyn Hagan Cain reported on the case of the Monks versus the Morticians, throughout its Fifth Circuit journey. The monks of St. Joseph's Abbey have been making cypress caskets to bury their brothers for decades. After Hurricane Katrina wiped out their pine forest, which was their primary means of support, the brothers put their casket-making skills to commercial use and began preparing for sales to the public.

Louisiana, long known as a bastion of honest, incorruptible government, had other ideas. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors sent the monks a cease-and-desist letter, complete with threats of jail time and fines, which cited a law restricting the intrastate sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors who have embalming equipment and a funeral parlor.

The Funeral Directors initially argued that the law was a public safety regulation, but after the Fifth Circuit barely suppressed their laughter and contempt for poorly-disguised economic protectionism, they now argue that economic protectionism is perfectly acceptable — and even somewhat common, reports The Advocate.

They may have a point.

The group cites the Tenth Circuit’s nearly identical case from 2004, Powers v. Harris, which also involved a state licensing scheme meant to protect funeral directors. The morticians won that round, with the court holding, “[W]hile baseball may be the national pastime of the citizenry, dishing out special economic benefits to certain in-state industries remains the favored pastime of state and local governments,” and snarkily remarking, “While the creation of such a libertarian paradise may be a worthy goal, Plaintiffs must turn to the Oklahoma electorate for its institution, not us.”

The court cites a number of examples of laws that protect in-state professionals, such as medical and legal licensing, teaching credentials, plumbers, electricians, and accountants. Of course, one might argue that shaping and selling a coffin is a matter far less in need of regulation than the life-and-death matter of medicine.

Though the Supreme Court hasn’t had the opportunity to discuss taking on the case (the petition for review was filed just last week), we sure hope they do. Monks, morticians, and caskets beats raisins and arbitration any day of the week. Besides, it’s a circuit split over coffins.

How often does that come along?

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