The Ukiah Daily Journal
As I've written about over the past few weeks, alcohol is the only substance meriting its own amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And, when Prohibition was repealed, the Constitution instead gave each state complete freedom to regulate alcohol, giving the United States a crazyquilt of laws unique even for a 50-state union.
In some states, for example, the state has a monopoly on wine and hard liquor sales. Some states have a “local option,” with “wet” and “dry” counties. And alcohol is the only substance that it's legal to sell except during certain hours of the day — usually some time between midnight and six a.m. All of this perhaps that explains why Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Robertson felt that a 1986 opinion just wasn't complete without a little essay on the place of beer in society.
As background, in 1985, Clinton, Mississippi was approached by a local clergyman, the Rev. Don Edwards, with a request to put measure on the ballot banning the sale of beer in the city limits. Under Mississippi law, such petitions required the signatures of 20 percent of the city's voters.
The city clerk concluded that the petitions were invalid because they didn't have enough signatures, but Rev. Edwards asked the City's Board of Aldermen to consider some additional signatures, and also asked the City to delete some voters who had died from the rolls. (Well, this was Mississippi, not Chicago.)
After some legal wrangling, the Board did just that, and the combination of additional signatures and a reduction in the official number of registered voters brought Edwards' petition within the limits to call the election. The measure to ban beer then passed by a small majority.
Some local businesses that would have been hurt by the beer ban challenged the election in court, ultimately bringing the matter before Justice Robertson and his colleagues. After disposing of some procedural matters, Robertson said that “rather than deliver an arid legal opinion” he would include what he called an “appropriate” effort to “keep in mind that ambiguous slice of life implicated in today's controversy.”
Robertson began by saying that this case was but the latest “in our people's seemingly unending struggle over the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.” Humankind, he said, has “expended untold quantities of time, energy, oratory and money battling the bottle,” and that three thousand years of history make two things clear: “that strong drink will be consumed by our people . . . regardless of what the law may provide,” but that “such consumption will, as it always has, disturb us and our neighbors” so periodic efforts will be made to ban it.
Beer, said Robertson, has had its defenders over the years; the English poet A.E. Housman once perceived that “many a peer of England brews/livelier liquor than the Muse/and malt does more than Milton can/to justify God's ways to man.” Robertson also noted that young people often encounter alcohol for the first time as beer, a “rite of passage” into young adulthood that “has emboldened many a student to “Olympian sophomoric heights, never to be forgotten nor, `tis hoped, repeated.”
More soberly, he noted that “barroom settings and the availability of a choice of psychological aids have provided credible vehicles” for literature. After citing a lengthy list of examples of such works, Robertson closed the piece with an excerpt from a well-known speech (well — wellknown in Mississippi, anyway) delivered in 1952 by Judge Noah Sweat, Jr.
Sweat had declared that, if “when you say whiskey, you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, . . . destroys the home . . .; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman . . . then certainly I am against it.
“But,/“if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their heart and laughter on their lips . . . then certainly I am for it./this is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”
Robertson eventually returned to duller questions, such as the election. Because many of the petition signatures appeared on blank pages with no indication that the signers even knew they were signing a petition, his court invalidated the election and sent back to see if the Rev. Edwards could present new, properly prepared, petitions.
There was one objecting voice. Another judge, although he agreed with the result, said that he “would have preferred that Part III be omitted from the opinion.”
Part III, of course, was Justice Robertson's rapturous essay on strong drink.