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Nebraska beer stores near reservation may have to close

FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2016, file photo, a customer enters State Line Liquor, one of four beer stores in the town of Whiteclay, Neb. Owners of the four beer stores that sell millions of cans of beer each year near a South Dakota American Indian reservation that is plagued by alcohol-related problems, are appealing a state regulator's decision not to renew their liquor licenses. The appeal was filed late Monday, April 24, 2017, in Lancaster County District Court. (Francis Gardler/The Journal-Star via AP, File)/The Journal-Star via AP)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four Nebraska beer stores that sell millions of cans annually near a South Dakota Indian reservation plagued by alcoholism may have to close, at least temporarily, while a case against them works its way through the courts.

The stores in Whiteclay scored a legal victory Thursday when a judge overturned a state commission’s decision not to renew their liquor licenses. But hours after the ruling, the Nebraska attorney general’s office filed a notice of appeal.

The appeal supersedes the judge’s ruling, which would have allowed the stores to stay in business. Their licenses are set to expire Sunday, at which point their attorney said they’ll have to close.

“We’re looking into all of our options” for how to respond, said Andrew Snyder, a Scottsbluff-based attorney for the stores.

The judge’s ruling had been a setback for those who want to close the stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of nine residents that sells millions of cans each year next to the reservation. Critics blame the stores for widespread alcoholism and high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome on the reservation, which is home to the Oglala Lakota Tribe.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ruled last week that it would not renew the stores’ licenses, citing a lack of adequate law enforcement in the area.

Whiteclay has drawn criticism for selling alcohol so close to the reservation and for drawing dozens of people a day who drink, pass out and sometimes fight in public.

The town was originally part of a 10-mile-wide, 5-mile-deep buffer zone created in 1889 to protect the reservation from whiskey peddlers. President Theodore Roosevelt returned all but one square mile of the land to the public domain in 1904, and alcohol merchants flocked to the area.

Lancaster County District Court Judge Andrew Jacobsen agreed with the stores’ arguments that the decision by state regulators was arbitrary and unreasonable and ran afoul of previous Nebraska Supreme Court rulings.

The liquor control commission “is vested with discretion in the granting or denial of retail liquor licenses, but it may not act arbitrarily or unreasonably,” Jacobsen said in the ruling.

The court has said the state must automatically renew licenses when a licensee is qualified to hold one, when the premises haven’t changed and the premises are still suitable for sales. Jacobsen said the commission failed to show that any of those conditions was not met.

A spokesman for the Oglala Lakota Tribe in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, said he had not yet seen the ruling and needed to consult with the tribe’s president before commenting.

John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who has advocated closing the stores, said he was confident the courts would eventually uphold the commission’s decision.

“Nebraskans see suffering in Whiteclay and want it to stop,” he said. “Taxpayers see hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on law enforcement in this tiny, unincorporated town and want those dollars spent elsewhere. That will happen in due time.”

Frank LaMere, an activist who has spent decades trying to shutter the stores, was “hugely disappointed” by the judge’s ruling.

“I apologize as a Nebraskan to my Oglala relatives,” said LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “There are many of us here who do see the death, the dying and the devastation that the judge just ignored under the color of law.”

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a leading advocate on Whiteclay issues, said she was “greatly disappointed” by the ruling but said she will continue working with other advocates to address public health and safety concerns.

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