LINCOLN, Neb. — The fate of four stores criticized for selling millions of cans of beer next to a dry South Dakota Indian reservation now rests with Nebraska’s highest court.
The Nebraska Supreme Court will decide in the next few months whether the stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, can resume beer sales next to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned, after state regulators shut them down in April.
On Tuesday, attorneys for the state, beer stores and residents who oppose the stores faced a litany of questions during oral arguments before the seven-member court. More than two dozen opponents of the stores rallied outside the Capitol after the hearing, toting signs that read “Shut down Whiteclay,” ”Stop Liquid Genocide,” and “Nebraska doesn’t need any more Native misery money.”
“I’m very encouraged,” said Frank LaMere, a longtime opponent of the stores and member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “We are going to look to the future — a future without Whiteclay.”
The stores sell the equivalent of about 3.5 million cans annually in the unincorporated village, which has nine residents and relies on a county sheriff’s office 23 miles away for law enforcement. For decades, Whiteclay served as a garbage-strewn hangout for intoxicated people to loiter, panhandle, fight and sleep on sidewalks.
Critics blame the stores for fueling alcohol-related social ills on the reservation, while supporters argue that the stores are legal businesses and closing them will not solve the problems plaguing the Oglala Lakota Nation. Some Nebraska residents say the stores’ location on the reservation’s southern border keeps drunken drivers off Nebraska roads.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted 3-0 in April to deny the stores’ requests to renew their liquor licenses, citing a lack of adequate law enforcement in the area. The stores have remained closed since that order went into effect.
Former Oglala Lakota Nation president Bryan Brewer, who lives on Pine Ridge, said he was confident the court would issue a ruling that closes the stores forever and allows tribe members to heal.
“The alcoholism is not going to stop right away, but it’s a win,” Brewer said.
Among the issues in the appeal are whether the commission had the authority to reject the stores’ request for a renewal, whether a district court erred in overturning that decision, and whether the state followed the correct procedures in notifying the beer stores that their licenses were at risk.
Andrew Snyder, an attorney for the beer stores, said commission members violated a state law that requires them to automatically renew a license as long as the store owner is still qualified, the premises remain the same and the premises are still suitable for selling alcohol. In the Whiteclay stores’ case, Snyder said none of those situations apply.
“The commission’s decision was a blatant violation of its authority,” Snyder said.
Dave Domina, an attorney for Sheridan County residents who oppose the stores, said the stores failed to follow proper legal procedures when appealing the commission’s decision.
Nebraska Solicitor General James Smith, the commission’s attorney, said the commission had at least six legitimate reasons to rule as it did. He also argued that the commission was not properly served with a summons during the appeal process, and thus the Supreme Court should overturn the district court’s ruling against the commission.
The court’s justices peppered each attorney with technical questions about the case, but gave no indication as to how they might rule. A ruling isn’t expected for at least six weeks.
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