Liquor License Renewal Appeal to Circuit Court – You Might Be Able to Fight City Hall Afterall

Nowell (d/b/a IC Willy’s) v. City of Wausau

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals, in a decision recommended for publication, has determined that if a liquor license is non-renewed by a municipality, and the license holder appeals the non-renewal in circuit court, the review is de novo, not certiorari review.  While these Latin terms may not mean much to the average liquor license holder, if a license is non-renewed by a municipality and the license holder wants to appeal that decision to the circuit court, it may make a huge difference.

De novo is a Latin phrase meaning “from the beginning” or “anew.”  In legal terms, a de novo review means that the circuit court will look at the case with fresh eyes – they will review the entire case, may accept new evidence, and will make a decision based on the evidence and facts presented in a civil trial. 

On the other hand, a “certiorari” review is a fairly limited review, usually only of the record from the lower tribunal.  In certiorari, there is a general presumption that the court will not overturn a local decision unless it is arbitrary and capricious.  And a court will not substitute its judgment for the local decision maker’s judgment.  In other words, in a certiorari review the court would look at what the local municipal decision makers decided and only overturn it if the decision was not based on the evidence, but was seemingly a willful and arbitrary decision, not a fair hearing.   This is a fairly high hurdle, compared to a court looking at everything anew.

I’m sure that the old saying that “you can’t fight city hall” still has life in it, but this decision, at least in the case of a non-renewal of a liquor license, gives the license holder some additional opportunity to take his or her case to an impartial court.

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