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Whiteclay beer stores ask judge to delay closure until appeal is heard

April 25, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — The four beer stores in Whiteclay formally asked a judge late Monday to delay their closure until they can get their day in court.

The request was filed in Lancaster County District Court, and a hearing on that request is expected to be held later this week.

The stores’ liquor licenses are set to expire April 30, following the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s decision last week to deny renewal of the licenses. So unless a judge grants a restraining order, beer sales in Whiteclay will end.

The attorney for the stores, Andy Snyder of Scottsbluff, has argued that the commission exceeded its authority in voting 3-0 last week to deny renewals to the Arrowhead Inn, D&S Pioneer Service, the Jumping Eagle Inn and State Line Liquor.

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The commission cited inadequate law enforcement in the remote, unincorporated village as the basis for its decision. But Snyder has maintained that the law enforcement requirement is only an issue when a liquor license is issued, and is not a reason that can be used to deny a renewal of a license.

In his court filings Monday, Snyder said that the public “health, safety and welfare” were not threatened sufficiently to close the stores immediately, and that if the stores were shuttered, irreparable economic harm would be done to the owners.

He also maintained that the vote to close the stores was unsupported by the evidence, and that the stores were denied their rights to due process when the commission ordered them to essentially reapply for their licenses this year.

The last time the state liquor board attempted to deny a liquor license in Whiteclay was in 2004, and the beer outlet, the Arrowhead Inn, was allowed to remain open while the case worked its way through the appeals process.

That process took about 20 months before the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the liquor commission did not have adequate reasons to deny a liquor license transfer to Jason Schwarting, the current owner of the business.

No matter how a judge rules on the current case, the decision is expected to be appealed, and also expected to go all the way to the State Supreme Court.

The case could help settle how much power the state liquor commission has in closing down stores that it feels cause health problems and contribute to overindulgence of alcohol.

Representatives of the liquor control commission did not respond immediately to a phone message left late Monday afternoon.

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Native American activists and child-welfare advocates have long sought an end to beer sales at Whiteclay, arguing that the sales are major contributors to rampant alcoholism and high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome on the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, across the state line in South Dakota.

Alcohol sales and possession are banned on the reservation. The Whiteclay stores sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year; almost all of those sales are to reservation residents.

In a related matter, state lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a bill creating a task force to study the health implications of the beer sales from Whiteclay.

A preliminary report and recommendations by the Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force is to be issued in December, with a final report due in 2019.

Legislative Bill 407, sponsored by State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, was passed on a 48-0 vote. It now heads to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signature.