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State Supreme Court Upholds 21 as Drinking Age

July 3, 1996

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Reversing a widely criticized March ruling, the state Supreme Court decided Tuesday that Louisiana’s minimum drinking age of 21 is constitutional.

Eighteen-year-olds have the rights of adults in Louisiana, including the right to marry and sign contracts. In March, the high court ruled 4-3 that setting a higher drinking age was unconstitutional age discrimination.

That ruling drew immediate protests from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and resulted in a proposed constitutional amendment to keep the drinking age at 21.

The majority opinion noted statistics and testimony showing that an increase in the drinking age decreases the overall number of alcohol-related fatalities.

``On reconsideration, we conclude that the statutes ... substantially further the appropriate governmental purpose of improving highway safety, and thus are constitutional,″ Justice Harry Lemmon wrote for the majority in the 5-2 ruling.

The decision keeps Louisiana from being the only state in the union with a drinking age under 21. It also preserves $14 million to $18 million a year in federal highway money _ the reason the Louisiana Legislature reluctantly raised the age for buying alcohol to 21 in the 1980s.

The state did not tighten the law further by making it illegal to sell alcohol to those 18 through 20 until 1995. The age has remained at 21 pending appeals.

The Beer Industry League, which opposed the higher drinking age, issued a statement blaming the ruling on the elected justices’ fear of angering voters.

``Any sophomore student of law recognizes that the decision handed down by the court was totally political,″ said George F. Brown, executive director.

The reversal happened with the help of a new justice, Joe Bleich, who wrote a concurring opinion saying the logic that was used to throw out the higher drinking age would make it ``impossible to ever draw a distinction based on age.″

Reactions from bartenders and club managers in the French Quarter were mixed.

``It’s hard on New Orleans. Being the last city where the age is 18 ... brought in a lot of money for the bars, said Julie Kluver, office manager at Molly’s at the Market. But aside from financial considerations, she said, ``it’s nice to have an adult crowd in the bar,″

None of the bartenders or managers interviewed admitted selling to those under 21, but New Orleans has a reputation as a haven for young drinkers.

Twenty-year-olds Christie Gardner and Rebecca West said they bought beers as soon as they arrived Tuesday from New York. Told they were breaking the law, Gardner said, ``That is so unfair.″

``I guess we’ll have to bring out our fake ID’s,″ said West.