Judge Calls Pr. George's Law on Strip Clubs Unconstitutional

By Henri E. Cauvin and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Maryland law that sought to block strip clubs in Prince George's County from selling alcohol carved out an unconstitutional exception for a club that was owned by a former state senator, a federal judge held this week.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis struck down the 2005 law, saying that its grandfather clause improperly favored Tommie Broadwater Jr. and that the law was overly broad.

The decision took particular exception with the treatment accorded to Broadwater, who for many years was owner of Ebony Inn in Fairmount Heights and whose son is now an owner of the club. Broadwater relinquished his Senate seat after a federal fraud conviction about 25 years ago.

Because of an amendment offered by Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), the 2005 law excluded clubs that opened before Aug. 15, 1981. Broadwater received approval to conduct "adult entertainment" business at the Ebony Inn on Aug. 14, 1981, Garbis wrote.

Garbis wrote that the clause was "obviously unrelated to any legitimate community interest and was enacted solely to favor a politically connected business establishment."

Exum said yesterday that he could not comment on the judge's ruling because he had not read it.

In an interview, Broadwater said he sought to have the Ebony Inn excluded from the legislation after he learned that it would exempt two other clubs, including the Hangar Club, which had been in business since 1974.

"We thought it was very unfair that they were the only ones that could have dancers," Broadwater said. "We had been in business for a long time, too, so we asked that the bill be amended."

In the decision filed Wednesday, Garbis wrote that the restrictions are open to such expansive interpretation that the owners of FedEx Field could be punished for allowing a Washington Redskins player to give a teammate a congratulatory pat on the rear. That possibility, he wrote, "does illustrate the extraordinary breadth of the restrictions at issue here."

When the government seeks to restrict free expression, Garbis said, it must be able to demonstrate that the restriction serves a "substantial government interest," and it must define the restrictions no more broadly than necessary.

After it was enacted, the law was immediately challenged. It never went into effect.

For the owners of the Legend Nightclub in Temple Hills and Classics Nightclub in Camp Springs, the ruling by Garbis was a vindication of a legal challenge that spanned almost four years.

"The government was trying to target adult entertainment based on no investigation and faulty information," said the clubs' attorney, Jimmy A. Bell. "There was no evidence that there was a correlation between adult entertainment and criminal effects."

James P. Keary, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said the county is studying its options.

"We don't know how it will impact us," Keary said. "That's what the [county] Office of Law is looking at right now."

Raquel M. Guillory, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, which defended the law, said lawyers there are reviewing the judge's decision.

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