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Louisiana High Court Reverses Itself, OKs 21-Year Drinking Age

July 2, 1996

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed itself today and upheld state law setting the minimum drinking age at 21.

In a ruling that evoked cries of horror from anti-drunken-driving groups and the threat of a loss of federal funds, the court had ruled in March that laws setting the drinking age above 18 were unconstitutional age discrimination.

This time, the vote was 5-2 in favor of the 21-year-old drinking age. The court’s newest justice, Joe Bleich, voted with the new majority, and Chief Justice Pascal Calogero switched sides.

Another element in the reversal of the decision: Judge Burrell Carter, a temporary appointee to the court when the last ruling was made, was not on the court this time around.

``The test adopted in the original opinion of the court and by the dissenters today defies the very intent of our constitution,″ Bleich wrote, concurring with the majority opinion written by Justice Harry Lemon. ``If one were to take the rationale of the dissenters to its conclusion, one would find it impossible to ever draw a distinction based on age.″

Bleich, Lemon, Calogero and Jeffery Victory all signed the majority opinion. Bernette Johnson joined the majority for separate reasons. Katherine Kimball, who wrote the March opinion, and Walter Marcus dissented, holding the position set out in that ruling.

Today’s decision keeps Louisiana from being the only state in the union with a drinking age under 21.

The decision also preserves federal highway money for the state.

The federal government has tied highway money to underage drinking for years. Faced with the loss of federal funds, the Louisiana Legislature reluctantly passed a law in the 1980s that made it illegal for those 18 through 20 to buy alcohol. But that law did not make sales to people in that age bracket illegal _ a loophole that police often said made enforcement difficult.

In 1995, under heavy pressure from anti-drunk driving groups, legislators outlawed the sale of alcohol to those 18 through 20. It was that law that led to court challenges that eventually resulted in the March ruling, in which the court held that 18- to 20-year-olds recognized as adults in other laws should be recognized as adults in the drinking age law. One anti-drunken-driving activist had called that ruling ``madness.″

The law upheld today makes it a crime for anyone under 21 to buy or possess alcoholic beverages. Exceptions to the law allow possession for religious purposes, at a nonprofit event, for those accompanied by a parent, for medical purposes and in private residences.

Today’s decision also effectively cancels a vote by the people on the issue. The Legislature recently voted to let people vote on a constitutional amendment to raise the drinking age, but they included a provision that cancels the vote in the event of a Supreme Court reversal of the March decision.

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