SJC lets liquor license question head to ballot 

The court said proposed alcohol rules form ‘integrated scheme’ 

A QUESTION REFORMING the state’s liquor license system will continue on to the November ballot, after the Supreme Judicial Court on Monday upheld the attorney general’s decision that the question is constitutional.  

The ballot question, which is being advocated for by the Massachusetts Package Store Association, centers on a complicated dispute between package stores and food and convenience stores about how many alcohol licenses should be available to different types of stores and what rules should govern them. 

A group of challengers, led by executives at the convenience store chain Cumberland Farms, had argued that the question should be excluded from the ballot because it contains multiple unrelated items. It would increase the total number of licenses a single retailer can hold, decrease the availability of “all alcohol” licenses, change age identification requirements, prohibit automated checkout of alcohol, and impose new fines for violating state alcohol laws. 

Under the state constitution, a ballot question proposed by a citizens’ initiative petition must contain only subjects that are “related or mutually dependent.”  

In a 21-page unanimous ruling written by Justice Dalila Wendlandt, the court ruled that the multiple parts of the question are all related, and therefore can proceed to the ballot. Wendlandt wrote that although the petition contains a variety of provisions affecting the licensing of retail sales, the formula for assessing fines, and the conduct of a sales transaction, “these subjects form part of an integrated scheme,” and the measure “presents a unified statement of public policy,” which the voters can fairly vote on. 

Wendlandt wrote that ballot questions may contain multiple provisions involving different regulatory issues as long as they are all part of one integrated scheme of regulation. In this case, she wrote, the ballot question “presents an integrated scheme whose various provisions serve the common purpose of loosening some of the current restrictions on the number and allocation of licenses for the retail sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption, while taking steps to mitigate the potential negative effects of this expansion.” 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Increasing the total number of licenses a retailer can hold and making it easier to use out of state identification would make purchasing alcohol more convenient, she wrote. At the same time, limiting the number of “all alcohol” licenses and imposing more regulations to guard against sales to minors would moderate the effect of those changes. The different provisions, Wendlandt wrote, are not contradictory as petitioners claimed, but are “operationally related.” “There is a logical relationship between the expansion of licensing provisions and the increased protection and enforcement measures to prevent underage consumption of alcohol,” she wrote. 

Still pending before the SJC are three cases dealing with the other proposed ballot questions. The court has not yet ruled on whether questions involving ride-hailing companies and dental insurance can go on the ballot, or on the summary language of a constitutional amendment that would impose higher taxes on income over $1 million.