WILL: Attorney General opinion threatens Wisconsin wedding barns

Contact: Collin Roth, WILL Director of Public Engagement
collin@will-law.org
414-727-7418

WILL disagrees with legal analysis, prepared to fight for economic freedom

Milwaukee, WI – On November 16, 2018, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a letter to Rep. Rob Swearingen that stated the opinion of the Wisconsin Department of Justice that state law subjects event venues available for private rental, such as wedding barns, to alcohol retail permitting requirements. The informal opinion, while non-binding, could result in a major change in the interpretation of state law and immediately threaten wedding barns.

WILL respectfully disagrees with the Attorney General and is prepared to litigate to protect economic freedom if necessary. WILL Attorney Anthony LoCoco commented:

“WILL disagrees with the Attorney General’s opinion. It represents a major threat to wedding barns. If the State of Wisconsin adopts the informal DOJ opinion for enforcement purposes, they should expect a fight.”

Under Wis. Stat. § 125.09(1), owners, lessees, and persons in charge of “public places” are prohibited from allowing the consumption of alcohol on the premises without a permit. Traditionally, this statute has been applied to restaurants or other places where people can flow in and out. But the Attorney General is now arguing that private event venues available for rent, such as wedding barns, are “public places” subject to the permitting requirement. This is an extreme interpretation of state law and one which reverses years of precedent.

The Attorney General’s analysis disregards the plain meaning of the phrase “public place.” A “public place” is a “place to which the general public has a right to resort . . . usually accessible to the neighboring public.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1107 (5th ed. 1979). An event venue on private property clearly does not meet that definition. The general public has no “right to resort” to an event venue but must rent the venue out on terms agreed to by the owner. While the Attorney General’s informal opinion suggests that event venues are “public” by virtue of the fact that they are generally available for rent or lease, such a broad interpretation would mean that someone renting out their own house would have to obtain a permit before anyone could drink alcohol there. State law does not mandate such an unreasonable result.

The DOJ opinion is the latest development in the fight against special interests who want to subject private rental venues to liquor licensing laws, an act that would close many family-owned Wisconsin businesses due to existing liquor licensing quotas. A bill passed in the Assembly in 2018 targeted wedding barns for regulation would have eliminated tailgating in Wisconsin and a legislative study committee considered subjecting a number of time-honored Badger State traditions to government red tape.

WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said:

“Adam Smith famously said that when people of the same business meet together, they often turn to “a conspiracy against the public.” It’s not surprising that the Tavern League wants to hurt, or even eliminate, their competition. But the law should not help them in their contrivance. In this case it doesn’t help them and should not be read to do so.”

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