LINCOLN — A village once labeled the “skid row of the Plains” can begin to heal now that the Nebraska Supreme Court has slammed the door on beer sales there, advocates said Friday.
The state high court ruled that the four beer stores in the tiny border town of Whiteclay should remain closed.
The ruling, although it turned on a technicality, leaves the store owners with few options.
“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.
Though the store owners could apply for new liquor licenses, Domina predicted their chances of success as “negligible.”
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson hailed the ruling, which upheld an order from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. He said there are no further avenues for appeal under state law.
“Today’s decision affords an opportunity to write a hopeful chapter in the story of Whiteclay,” Peterson said.
In the past, Andy Snyder, the Scottsbluff attorney who represented the beer stores, has raised the possibility that the store owners might file a federal civil rights lawsuit over the denial of their licenses.
Snyder was not at his office Friday and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But a member of the Sheridan County Board, which had voted in favor of renewing the liquor licenses in Whiteclay, called it a sad day for the county and the store owners.
Jack Andersen of Lakeside said shutting down the Whiteclay stores just means people 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,” board member Andersen said.
In Friday’s decision, the high court ruled that the beer outlets had failed to properly notify citizen protesters that they were appealing the liquor commission’s decision.
That, the court said, nullified the appeal, which left the commission’s decision standing.
The court’s ruling did not address whether the liquor board had the power to deny liquor license renewals because of inadequate law enforcement in the unincorporated town.
Whiteclay had become notorious for selling 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just across the South Dakota state line, where alcohol is banned.
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, whose district includes Whiteclay and who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said he was glad the “era of suffering and disgrace” was over in the village.
“The Supreme Court ruling today has brought law and order to a forgotten corner of Nebraska,” he said.
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 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 lifelong physical and mental handicaps.
Bob Batt, the Omaha businessman who heads the liquor commission, said Friday there was “zero chance” that the commission would reissue licenses to the beer stores, absent some change in law enforcement there.
If the store owners did reapply, it could trigger months of more legal wrangling.
On April 19, the commission voted 3-0 against renewing 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 on April 27 overturned the commission’s order. Later that day, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office appealed that decision, superseding the decision.
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 hear the appeal.
Domina had raised the issue of notice in his arguments before the Supreme Court.
Those seeking to get the stores closed expressed gratitude for the court’s ruling.
Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, Nebraska, 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 Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Perhaps now, he said, that would change.
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 shown his documentary, “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian,” to many church and university groups in 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.”
A summit, organized by Brewer and Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, is scheduled for today in Whiteclay to discuss the future of the village.
Brewer pointed to signs of renewal in Whiteclay since the beer stores closed in April. Among them was the disappearance of almost all the people who drank, fought and urinated on the streets. He said the predicted flood of alcohol-related problems in other communities has not materialized.
Some local residents, though, say the closings have just shifted liquor sales to other communities, farther away.
Three alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities have occurred in the two counties bordering the reservation since the stores closed.
Domina said Friday’s ruling was the most satisfying in his more than four decades of practicing law. His career has been studded with million-dollar awards and victories in some of Nebraska’s highest profile cases. “This one was about people,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the date on which the liquor commission voted against renewing the beer stores' licenses. It was April 19.