Four embattled beer stores in Whiteclay must remain closed following a Nebraska Supreme Court decision Friday, seen as a resounding victory for opponents of alcohol sales in the northwest Nebraska reservation border town.
The ruling all but eliminates any hope the beer store owners had of reopening — at least in the near future.
The stores, which were forced to close in April, had for decades served millions of cans of beer each year to residents of South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.
“Wow. Outstanding. Outstanding. Wow. Tremendous,” said anti-Whiteclay beer activist John Maisch as a reporter read him the court's conclusion.
The justices did not weigh in on the issues of rampant alcoholism on Pine Ridge or lawlessness in Whiteclay itself. Instead, they determined that a fatal legal flaw had doomed the beer store owners' appeal of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's April decision to deny their liquor licenses.
"Our decision today does not address the merits of the parties’ respective positions, but rests solely on jurisdictional grounds," Justice John Wright wrote in a 17-page opinion.
The court agreed with Dave Domina, the attorney for Sheridan County residents opposed to the stores, who argued that the stores hadn't correctly appealed to the court because they hadn't included his clients in the case.
Because they didn't, a Lincoln judge's order reversing the Liquor Commission's decision was void, Wright said.
Andrew Sndyer, attorney for the beer stores, did not immediately return phone messages Friday.
“Today’s Nebraska Supreme Court decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over," said Domina. "It also means huge rocks have been removed from the road to recovery for many of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation and the Pine Ridge Reservation.”
Bryan Brewer, a formal tribal president who has opposed Whiteclay beer sales, thanked the Supreme Court and the people of Nebraska.
"The Lakota people, we've never won anything. This is a major victory for us — kind of our first big win," Brewer said. "We are very pleased up here.
"We're very happy with their decision, and hopefully we can start the healing process for our people, especially our children."
It is unclear whether the beer stores will make another legal bid to reopen.
They could seek a rehearing by the Nebraska Supreme Court, or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision. The stores could also challenge the state through an entirely new lawsuit, possibly in federal court.
Another option would be to apply for new liquor licenses, then go to court once more if the licenses aren't granted.
Bob Batt, the Liquor Commission chairman, said there's "zero" chance the commission will allow beer sales to resume in Whiteclay anytime soon, short of a reversal by the courts.
He called Friday's decision a victory for due process and the rule of law.
"God Bless America," he said. "We’ve brought some closure to this."
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, whose office represented the Liquor Commission in the appeal, complimented two lawyers on his staff, Solicitor General Jim Smith and Assistant Attorney General Milissa Johnson-Wiles, for their work in the case.
"Today’s decision affords an opportunity to write a hopeful chapter in the story of Whiteclay," Peterson said in a news release.
A task force led by two state senators, Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Tom Brewer of Gordon, has already begun drawing up plans for new business development and human services in Whiteclay. The task force is visiting the area this weekend for a series of meetings.
"Streets once plagued with public intoxication, vagrancy, assaults, rape, and unsolved murder are now peaceful," Sen. Brewer said Friday. "The drain on Sheridan County emergency services and law enforcement is a fraction of what it once was. The healing of a town once called 'The Skid Row of the Plains' has started."