Appeals Court Halts Tribal Bingo and Slots on Martha’s Vineyard

Posted on: May 25, 2017, 03:22h. 

Last updated on: May 25, 2017, 03:27h.

A federal court in Massachusetts this week ordered the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head to halt its plans for opening a small casino on Martha’s Vineyard. The ruling comes just more than a month after the same court gave the tribe the go-ahead.

Ron Rappaport, town counsel of Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard
Ron Rappaport, town counsel for Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, wants the Supreme Court to consider community opposition before allowing a small casino to open on the tony island retreat. (Image: MVTimes)

A six-judge panel from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued a “stay of mandate,” which prevents the tribe from operating any gambling facilities on Martha’s Vineyard for the next 90 days. This will allow residents of the island, a famous summer playground for the wealthy, to petition the court to put a stop to the tribe’s plans.

Ronald Rappaport, a lawyer for the island town of Aquinnah and the Gay Head Community Association, confirmed that he would be filing a petition to have the Supreme Court to review the case before an August 8 deadline.

Sovereign Cliffs

The tribe, however, has claimed the petition will “continue to unjustly deprive the tribe of a desperately needed source of government revenue,” potentially equating to $400,000 a month.

The Wampanoag, which became a federally recognized tribe 30 years ago, are seeking to convert an unfinished, vacant community center in Aquinnah into an electronic bingo hall and slots parlor, with proceeds meant to support social programs and spur economic development for the tribe.

In 2015, a US district judge ruled against the proposal, saying the Wampanoag failed to exercise sufficient “governmental power” over its tribal land to meet the definition of a sovereign nation, as required by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s (IGRA).

The decision barred the tribe from opening any type of gaming facility without approval from the town and local community. But that ruling was spectacularly and unanimously overturned last month by the Court of Appeals.

Islander Appeal

Town residents and officials contend the tribe forfeited its right to open a gaming facility in Aquinnah when they signed a compact in 1987, predating IGRA. The agreement provided the tribe control over 485 acres of land, but required compliance with state and local laws, including prohibitions against gambling.

In April, the appellate court ruled that IGRA trumps that compact.

“The town gets it backward,”  Judge Juan Torruella wrote in his ruling. “The town now seeks to put this logic on its head by requiring the tribe’s government to be fully developed before it can have the benefit of gaming revenues. This is not what IGRA requires, nor is it our case law.”