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The POWER 30: Steven J. Wells

Minnesota Lawyer//October 28, 2021

The POWER 30: Steven J. Wells

Minnesota Lawyer//October 28, 2021

It’s not every day that the 21st Amendment takes the stage in litigation along with the Coleman Act.

The 21st Amendment, of course, repealed Prohibition. And the 1970s saw the Coleman Act, which regulates liquor sales.

The plaintiff in the case Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits LLC et al v. Harrington, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, brought suit to have the act declared unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause because it prohibits out-of-state liquor producers from entering exclusive distribution agreements in Minnesota.

The attorney general has declined to defend it, although the office is still in the suit. The statute will be defended by intervenors Johnson Brothers Liquor Co., represented by Steven Wells at Dorsey.

Enacted in 1973, the Coleman Act is a Minnesota statute that allegedly discriminates in favor of in-state liquor producers in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause. The state of Minnesota — through its attorney general and commissioner of public safety — agrees that the Coleman Act is unconstitutional.

In conjunction with this complaint, the parties are filing a stipulated order for final judgment that declares the Coleman Act to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution and enjoins any future enforcement of the statute against plaintiffs, the complaint alleges.

The Coleman Act prohibits out-of-state liquor producers from granting exclusive distribution rights to licensed wholesalers in Minnesota. Neither that act nor any other statute denies that choice to in-state producers, and the Minnesota Legislature has never articulated a legitimate, local reason for giving in-state producers greater freedom in distributing their products.

The Coleman Act thus grants in-state producers access to customers on preferential terms without justification, the complaint continues. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans have planned legislation to amend the act.

It’s not the first federal or constitutional claim Wells has addressed in business litigation, including the First Amendment, Contracts Clause and Supremacy Clause. His cases have also included products liability, franchises, agribusiness and medical devises. He has also represented death row inmates in habeas proceedings in circuit courts.

The more types of industries he represents, the more disparate his clients become, Wells said.
His approach to litigation is that facts matter, Wells said.

“I’m a big believer in facts. I craft a story around the facts and not the other way around,” he said.
“We have a great system of justice, but it has to be based on evidence,” he added.

But we live in a time where evidence-based decision making has been “trashed” by public events, he said. That raises challenges during voir dire. He tries to explore jurors’ predilections in that area by “coming at it sideways,” he said.

“I ask them what they read, [trying to find out] if all they read is one thing and if the forum doesn’t respect alternative views,” he said.

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