After more than 50 years, an oft-criticized part of Oklahoma's law involving liquor sales could be one step closer to changing.
Oklahoma Supreme Court justices spent Thursday morning listening to attorneys argue for and against ballot language aimed at letting voters decide whether wine should be sold at certain grocery stores in the state.
The justices are expected to make their decision about the constitutionality of the ballot language “at any time,” an attorney close to the proceedings said.
The group Oklahomans for Modern Laws filed the proposed ballot language with the Supreme Court in early April, and it was approved by the state attorney general's office.
Two protests were filed toward the end of a 10-day waiting period, which led to a hearing before a court-appointed referee.
About the proposal
The proposed ballot language essentially is seeking to allow the state's 15 largest counties — those with population of 50,000 or more — to decide whether grocery stores of a certain size can sell wine, which has been the domain of the liquor store industry since 1959.
Eligible counties would include Oklahoma, Tulsa, Canadian, Cleveland, Comanche, Creek, Garfield, Grady, Le Flore, Muskogee, Payne, Pottawatomie, Rogers, Wagoner and Washington.
Under current law, only liquor stores can sell wine and strong beer, neither of which can be refrigerated.
The groups Fighting Addiction Through Education and the Oklahoma Prevention Policy Alliance and an owner of Oklahoma City-area liquor stores filed the protests, claiming that the proposed ballot language deals with more than one issue and that voter approval would increase alcohol abuse.
Under state law, initiatives seeking to amend the state's charter document can only deal with one subject, to eliminate voter confusion.
Attorney John Brightmire, who was representing the liquor store owner, argued the law change would violate the equal protection clause because grocery stores could sell wine and other products such as gum, candy and other foods.
A judge, however, argued that the same could be said for liquor stores, which can sell liquor and strong beer while grocery stores cannot.
The judges also seemed concerned that only the 15 largest counties in the state would be allowed to sell wine in grocery stores.
Attorneys representing Oklahomans for Modern Laws said the population requirement was added to minimize the impact on law enforcement agencies, as well as to cushion the blow to the liquor store industry.
They also said the law changes would be phased in to allow lawmakers more time to adjust, including the possibility of increasing the budget of state agencies such as the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission, if deemed appropriate.
If the ballot language is approved by the justices, Oklahomans for Modern Laws will have to collect 155,216 signatures and must have them submitted 60 days before November's general election.
The group has been trying for years to change Oklahoma's liquor laws and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Brian Howe, the group's spokesman, said its research suggests Oklahomans are ready for a change and would support the constitutional amendment, which could be among the most significant in state history.
“I think this really would represent potentially the third biggest change to our constitution,” said John Maisch, an ABLE Commission attorney, during a recent interview with The Oklahoman.
Other significant changes include the end of prohibition in 1959, and a 1984 amendment that allowed for liquor to be sold by the drink.
CONTRIBUTING: Jennifer Palmer, staff writer