Thursday, August 1, 2019
Judge Christopher R. Cooper (D.D.C.) dismissed as moot a case by Atlas Brew Works arguing that the government's inability to approve its beer label during the government shutdown earlier this year violated its First Amendment right to free speech. In particular, Judge Cooper ruled that Atlas's claim didn't meet the mootness exception for cases that are "capable of repetition but evading review."
The case, Atlas Brew Works v. Barr, arose during the government shutdown, when, because of a lack of appropriated funds, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (in Treasury) couldn't approve Atlas's pending application for a label, as required by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. (The FAA requires Bureau approval of a label before a brewer can distribute its beer in interstate commerce. It provides criminal penalties for violators.) Atlas filed suit, arguing that the government's failure to approve its pending label infringed on its right to free speech, because the lack of approval meant that it couldn't legally distribute its seasonal beer, which, without an approved label, would go stale. (Atlas put it this way: "[i]t cannot be denied the right to speak for lack of meeting an impossible condition.") Atlas sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction preventing the Justice Department from enforcing the FAA's criminal sanctions against it.
Once the shutdown ended, the government moved to dismiss the case as moot. Yesterday, the court agreed.
The court ruled first that Atlas's claim couldn't survive as a challenge to the government's policy, because, in short, there's no ongoing policy behind the shutdown that would infringe on Atlas's free speech.
The court ruled next that Atlas's claim was not capable of repetition but evading review. Judge Cooper explained:
To recap the boxes that must be checked for this dispute to recur: a lapse in appropriations must happen; the lapse must affect the Treasury Department; the lapse must last long enough to actually cause a shutdown; Treasury must respond to the shutdown by shuttering the [beer-label approval process under the FAA]; and Atlas must have a [label] application pending at the time the shutdown begins or file one shortly thereafter. In the Court's view, the combination of these contingencies takes this case beyond the limits of the capable-of-repetition exception to mootness.