Hope and Reversals as Whiteclay Fight Goes to the Courts - 4/27/17

Nebraska Liquor Commission hearing on Whiteclay liquor storesThe residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation saw daylight for a moment, until a Nebraska judge ruled the door slammed shut. Presented with evidence of the chronic and unaddressed public health catastrophe caused by a flood of alcohol coming through the tiny nine-person town of Whiteclay, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ruled unanimously to pull the licenses from the town’s stores. On Thursday, April 27, however, Lancaster County District Judge Andrew Jacobsen threw out the commission’s decision, ruling that automatic renewals of liquor licenses are constitutionally mandated.

The unexpected ruling flew in the face not only of the residents of Pine Ridge, but also a rapidly growing number of Nebraskan leaders. State Senator Patty Brooks had already declared White Clay a “public health disaster.” Col. Tom Brewer, a freshman state senator whose district includes Whiteclay, has stood strong for the closure of the stores even as constituents threaten to withhold their votes. After an April 6th hearing Liquor Commission hearing, which uncovered appalling health consequences and chronic crime paired with very little law enforcement efforts, the liquor commission deliberated on whether to force the four Whiteclay stores to re-apply for licenses, unanimously agreeing not to automatically renew. Under the conditions afflicting Whiteclay, there was little chance a new application would have been approved.

Judge Jacobsen’s decision undermines that, however, ruling that a felony conviction, the licensees can’t be forced to reapply. To Alcohol Justice Advocacy Director Jorge Castillo, however, that makes for a delay, not a reversal. "It is clear that the Whiteclay Liquor stores have been breaking the law and devastating the Pine Ridge community for decades,” he said. “With growing public awareness and pending hearings, these stores can't continue to get away on technicalities forever."

The Nebraska Attorney General’s office is appealing the decision, however; after a rapid legal back-and-forth, it appears the liquor stores will close until the appeal is decided. Even if the stores prevail again, the Attorney General’s Office alleges the stores have engaged in bootlegging, and a hearing on those charges will go forward later this year.

"Pine Ridge activist and community advocates have fought hard for decades they are not going to give up now,” said Castillo. “Alcohol Justice will continue to assist in this effort until we stop the illegal alcohol activity associated with the liquor stores taking place in Whiteclay."

The coming months will show what new efforts are needed from advocates for the Sioux and public health. But starting Sunday, even if it only lasts for a few days, Pine Ridge and Sheridan County will know what it’s like to live without the constant, devastating specter of alcohol harm.

READ MORE about the Nebraska Liquor Commission hearings.