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Wisconsin Court: Drink-special Bans Acceptable

This story was written by Richie Rathsack, Badger Herald

After a four-year and nearly $700,000 battle through the court system, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided Tuesday that Madison-area tavern owners did not violate anti-trust laws on their voluntary ban of weekend drink specials.

Pete Madland, executive director of the Wisconsin Tavern League, which was the defendant in the case, said while they were happy with the decision, the cost of both the state and the still-pending federal case shave been tremendous.

Obviously were happy with the decision. This is a situation where tavern owners were trying to work with the city to solve a problem, Madland said. The court decided the spirit was proper, and the bar owners did nothing wrong.

In 2004 three individuals, including two University of Wisconsin students, filed a lawsuit against a group of downtown area taverns for banning weekend specials, which they said amounted to price fixing.

Kendall Harrison, attorney for the taverns, said the Supreme Court decided what the taverns have been arguing from the beginning of the case.

This is exactly how we expected it would end. From the outset, we argued that our clients had done what the city asked them to do. Thats the way the Supreme Court saw it, Harrison said. It was pretty clear from the fact that it was in response to the citys regulatory pressure.

Had the Supreme Court decided against them, the plaintiffs believe they would have been awarded tens of millions of dollars in damages since they claimed to be representing a whole group of bar-going people, according to Harrison.

The Supreme Court decision said since the city of Madison threatened the taverns with alternative actions, the health and safety immunity received by local municipalities should extend to the taverns in this case. If the tavern owners did not find a solution, the city would have made ordinances banning drink specials at all times.

Attorney for the plaintiffs Kay Hunt said because the law does not state private businesses can have this immunity, she does not think it should apply to them.

Our government is a government of laws and rules and regulations, Hunt said. Its one thing if the city of Madison says it, but if individuals engage in it themselves, it is something quite different.

Wisconsins anti-trust laws do not allow businesses to get together and decide to create a fixed price in order to make more money, according to Harrison. In this instance, the court decided that since the city regulates alcohol licensing and they were the instigator of the ban, the businesses were not trying to restrain competition.

Hunt thinks this decision may have greater implications for the state down the road.

If you have a highly regulated industry, that can then be used to make you immune from price fixing, Hunt said.

Justice David Prosser wrote the majority opinion with Justices Annette Ziegler and Patience Roggensack concurring. Justice Louis Butler wrote the dissenting opinion saying the law itself does not grant private individuals immunity. Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Patrick Crooks did not participate, and Justice Shirley Abrahamson withdrew from participation.

The matter now moves to a federal case before District Justice Lynn Adelman, who was waiting on the outcome of todays decision before making his decision, according to Harrison.

According to the decision, the university issued a press release March 10, 2004 stating the voluntary drink specials ban has been inconclusive and serious alcohol-related crime continues to rise.A university PACE Project study of downtown police calls found that downtown disorderly conduct violations increased 38 percen on Friday nights and 38.4 percent on Saturday nights from August 2002 to August 2003 when the voluntary ban was in place.