The Arkansas Supreme Court is supposed to provide impartial resolutions to legal disputes. But the state’s highest court this week only added more legal complexity to an already complicated case involving a casino license in Pope County.
In a unanimous decision issued today, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) had the right to intervene involving a lawsuit brought by the Gulfside Casino Partnership against the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) last year.
Arkansas voters in 2018 voted to allow four land-based commercial casinos in the state. The ballot referendum authorized Southland and Oaklawn racinos to pivot into full-sale casinos with slot machines and table games. Two from-the-ground-up casinos were also approved, one each in Jefferson and Pope counties.
The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma and its Downstream Development Authority moved quickly after winning approval in Jefferson and receiving its license from ARC. The tribe opened the Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff last October.
Pope Casino License Back in Jeopardy
Under the 2018 constitutional amendment passed by voters, project proposals to county governments must include support from local officials, including a county judge. The Gulfside Casino Partnership’s casino bid in Pope County included the support of Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson.
However, Gibson exited the position at the start of 2019, and his successor, Judge Ben Cross, favored a casino submission from CNB. After the Racing Commission deemed Gulfside’s bid invalid because of not having a current county judge’s support, Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled in Gulfside’s favor on grounds that the 2018 ballot referendum said nothing about the judge needing to be sitting on the current county bench.
Fox also prevented the Cherokees from intervening in the case. And the Arkansas Supreme Court said that was wrong.
The seemingly minute ruling this week has big consequences. The high court’s decision reopens the matter to new legal challenges. CNB attorneys have already stated publicly their plan to appeal the Racing Commission’s decision last week to formally approve the Gulfside casino plan.
Pope County’s eventual casino will open many years after Jefferson’s. The saga began when ARC Commissioner Bruce Rice was deemed to have had a bias in scoring the two casino presentations. Rice gave Gulfside a perfect 100 points, while only 29 for the Cherokee scheme.
Rice’s 71-point differential single-handedly tipped the overall results in Gulfside’s favor. ARC decided to recuse Rice from the licensing and deemed his scores invalid.
Lawyers, including Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office, stepped in. ARC Chair Alex Lieblong’s text messages with CNB attorney Dustin McDaniel later resulted in Lieblong excusing himself from the matter, too.
ARC, with an independent third-party counsel, decided last week to proceed with Gulfside. But the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling gives additional legal groundway for CNB attorneys to halt Gulfside from breaking ground.
The case continues.