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Nebraska court ends beer sales near South Dakota reservation

This Oct. 20, 2016 photo shows a view of Whiteclay, Neb. from the south looking north, on Route 87 in Whiteclay, Neb. (Francis Gardler / associated press)
This Oct. 20, 2016 photo shows a view of Whiteclay, Neb. from the south looking north, on Route 87 in Whiteclay, Neb. (Francis Gardler / associated press)

LINCOLN, Neb. – Four Nebraska beer stores criticized for selling millions of cans each year to an American Indian reservation where alcohol is banned will remain closed after the state Supreme Court on Friday rejected their appeal.

The court thwarted the last-ditch effort to resume beer sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a tiny village on the border of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The ruling upholds an April decision by state regulators not to renew the stores’ licenses amid criticism that the area lacks adequate law enforcement.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is plagued by a litany of alcohol-related problems, including high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, and activists complain that Whiteclay fuels those issues. The four stores – in a village with just nine residents – had sold the equivalent of about 3.5 million cans of beer annually.

Whiteclay has also served for decades as a remote hangout for people to panhandle, loiter, fight and pass out on sidewalks. Its residents rely on a county sheriff’s office 23 miles away for law enforcement.

“Today’s Nebraska Supreme Court decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over,” said Dave Domina, an Omaha attorney for local residents who protested the liquor licenses. “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.”

The court rejected the retailers’ appeal on a technicality, arguing that they failed to include all “parties of record” when they asked a district court to review the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s decision. The justices ruled that they couldn’t review the case because the district court didn’t have proper jurisdiction.

“Our decision today does not address the merits of the parties’ respective positions, but rests solely on jurisdictional grounds,” the court said in its opinion.

An attorney for the four stores did not immediately return a phone message Friday morning. A phone call to the Oglala Lakota Nation’s main government office rang unanswered.

Bob Batt, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s chairman, said commissioners won’t likely approve any new liquor licenses in the area anytime soon.

“I’d say the chances of that are zip,” he said.

Some residents in rural Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay, said they were concerned that closing the stores could lead to an influx of drunken drivers on Nebraska roads. Authorities have reported a slight uptick in alcohol-related crashes but said it’s too early to call it a trend or to blame the closure of the stores.

“Yes, the Whiteclay stores are closed now, but there’s still drinking that’s happening,” said Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser, who opposed the decision to shutter the retailers. “I just can’t believe that in America these days, the government can come in and shut you down like that.”

John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who produced a documentary on Whiteclay and fought to close the stores, said he was “elated” with the court’s ruling on Friday but noted that many adults and children will continue to suffer for decades with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. With the stores closed, he said he would turn his attention to working with local Pine Ridge residents on a fetal alcohol syndrome treatment center.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Maisch said.


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