A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Kentucky law prohibiting grocery and convenience stores from selling wine and distilled spirits is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of Louisville said the state law "violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause in that it prohibits certain grocery stores, gas stations and others ... from obtaining a license to sell package liquor and wine."
In Kentucky locations where alcohol sales are allowed, beer — but not wine or spirits — may be sold in grocery stores. Grocery stores, however, may get a license to sell wine and liquor if they provide a separate entrance to that part of the store, where minors are not allowed to work. A store employee of legal age is required to conduct beer sales.
Such requirements do not apply to drugstores.
"You can walk into a large CVS or Walgreens, and they can have as many groceries to sell as many grocery stores do. Yet they can sell alcoholic beverages in the store while a grocery cannot," said Steve Pitt, a Louisville attorney who represents Maxwell's Pic-Pac Inc. and the Food and Wine Coalition in their civil lawsuit against the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Heyburn said his order would be put on hold until the court could hold a conference with the parties involved to discuss various issues. He did not provide details of those issues.
Dick Brown, a spokesman for the state ABC, said the agency was "studying the ruling to determine its impact."
If it stands, the ruling could swamp the state with license applications from grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations that want to sell liquor and wine.
The judge wrote in his 29-page order that there was little difference today between grocery stores and drugstores.
Pitt said the ruling would allow more convenience for consumers, especially those who shop in grocery stores. He noted that the ruling does not affect businesses in dry counties that prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Eric Gregory, president of the Frankfort-based Kentucky Distillers' Association, said his group's members had not had a chance to discuss Heyburn's ruling.
The group has opposed proposals in the state legislature to allow sales of wine in grocery stores, saying it would hurt small liquor retail businesses.
Daniel Meyer, executive secretary and general counsel of Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Kentucky, based in Louisville, said he was surprised by the ruling but noted it was not a final order.
"We were not a part of the lawsuit," Meyer said. "I guess now we'll have to see what the parties have to say about it and what this conference the judge wants might produce."
The law dealing with the sale of wine and liquor in pharmacies and grocery stores dates to Prohibition, when prescriptions could be obtained to buy alcohol at drugstores, Meyer said.
The sales were restricted in grocery stores, he said, because the thought was that minors are often in grocery stores and should not be exposed to liquor.
Kentucky has a hodgepodge of laws dealing with the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Gov. Steve Beshear has set up a special task force headed by Public Protection Secretary Robert Vance to try to modernize and streamline Kentucky's laws.
It is to hold the first of three public forums Thursday in Frankfort and report its recommendations to Beshear in January for possible consideration during the 2013 General Assembly.