Nebraska Supreme Court rejects effort to resume beer sales in Whiteclay

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court delivered a victory Friday to those opposed to beer sales in the border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

The court ruled that the stores should remain closed because the beer outlets, in appealing an order by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, had failed to notify citizen protesters of the appeal.

That, the court ruled, nullified the appeal, thus upholding the closing of the stores.

The court’s ruling did not address the merits of the case, which dealt with whether the liquor board had the power to deny liquor licenses because of inadequate law enforcement in the unincorporated town.

So, a technicality has killed liquor sales in a village that grew notorious for selling 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of an impoverished Indian reservation just across the South Dakota border where alcohol is banned.

“Today’s Nebraska Supreme Court decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over,” said attorney Dave Domina, who represented four Sheridan County residents who objected to the liquor licenses.

Domina raised the issue of lack of notice to his clients. He said the liquor stores have few options to reopen now. They could reapply for new liquor licenses, but he said that would be “pretty hard.”

“These licenses are dead. The renewal of these licenses are dead,” Domina said Friday morning.

Bob Batt, the Omaha businessman who heads the liquor commission, said Friday morning that there was “zero chance” that the commission would reissue licenses to the beer stores, absent some change in law enforcement there.

Andy Snyder, the Scottsbluff attorney who represented the beer stores, was not at his office Friday and did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, he has raised the possibility that the store owners might file a federal civil rights lawsuit over the denial of their licenses.

A member of the Sheridan County Commission, which had voted in support of renewing the liquor licenses in Whiteclay, said it was a sad day for the county and the store owners.

Jack Andersen of Lakeside said that shutting down the Whiteclay stores just means people will have to drive farther to obtain alcohol, increasing the risk of alcohol-related crashes.

“The problem is not the places where you can get alcohol, it’s the demand for alcohol. And I don’t think that’s been changed,” Andersen said.

In April, the commission voted 3-0 to reject renewal of the licenses, ruling that law enforcement was inadequate to allow liquor sales in the border village, which has about nine residents and no local police. The closest law enforcement office, the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office, is 22 miles away. People told the commission they didn’t bother reporting assaults on the streets of Whiteclay because it took too long for deputies to respond.

The Whiteclay stores appealed the commission’s decision, and a Lancaster County judge overturned the commission’s order. The Supreme Court ruled Friday, however, that the lack of notice about the appeal to Domina’s clients was a fatal flaw, denying all parties a chance to appear in court. So the judge’s order was vacated, the court ruled, because he lacked jurisdiction to do what he did.

Activists have sought for decades to close down the four beer-only liquor stores. They argued that the sales exacerbated alcoholism and other alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Alcohol sales and alcohol possession are officially banned on the reservation. But an estimated one in four children there is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause life-long physical and mental handicaps.

Those seeking the stores’ closure expressed gratitude for the court’s ruling.

John Maisch, the Oklahoma attorney and filmmaker whose documentary about Whiteclay’s woes reignited interest in the liquor sales, said it was ironic that a legal technicality had finally closed the stores.

Maisch, who once prosecuted liquor cases in Oklahoma, called the liquor board’s vote “one of the most courageous acts” of any alcohol regulator in the nation.

Maisch has showed his documentary, “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian,” to many church and university groups over recent years. It raised concerns about fetal alcohol syndrome and how sales at Whiteclay contributed to the epidemic on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Nate Grasz, of the Nebraska Family Alliance, called Friday’s court ruling “a victory for the rule of law and a positive step towards protecting the vulnerable and innocent.”

Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, first asked that the Whiteclay stores be closed down 20 years ago. On Friday, he said that Nebraska had been “complicit” in the misery of the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Perhaps now, he said, that would change.

A summit, organized by State Sens. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Tom Brewer of Gordon, is scheduled for Saturday in Whiteclay to discuss the future of the village.

The four Whiteclay stores closed in April. Since then, almost all of the vagrants who openly drank and urinated on the streets of Whiteclay have left the town.

Local residents, though, say the closure has just shifted liquor sales to other communities, farther away.

Three alcohol-related fatalities in vehicle crashes have occurred in the area since the Whiteclay stores closed.

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