Indian tribes in Maine are hoping to gain the ability to open casinos in the state without first seeking state approval.

Maine Indian tribes casinos

John Henry Bear is seeking an order that would ask the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to clarify the gaming rights of Maine’s Native American tribes. (Image: Troy R. Bennett/BDN)

In order to do so, they hope to get a legislative order from the Maine House of Representatives that would ask the state’s Supreme Judicial Court whether that is possible under state law.

The order was proposed by Representative Henry John Bear, who represents the Houlton Band of Maliseets but does not have a vote in the state legislature.

Bear is arguing that the 1987 case of California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians lifted restrictions on gaming on tribal reservations across the United States, allowing his tribe – and others – to build resorts without first seeking permission from the state.

Constitutional Rule Allows Questions to be Asked of Court

Maine’s constitution allows the House, Senate, or governor to ask the Supreme Judicial Court to “give their opinion upon important questions of law.” That means that Bear would only need permission from the House of Representatives in order to get that question answered.

“I’ve proposed this at the advice of numerous legislators,” Bear told the Bangor Daily News. “I’m hoping this order is just approved unanimously.”

The proposal comes at a time when the relationship between the state government and tribal officials in the state is a bit strained. Two of the state’s four federally recognized tribes have removed their representatives from the legislature in retaliation to Governor Paul LePage’s decision to cancel his own executive order which ensured that tribes would be consulted when state decisions would impact them.

No Momentum for Tribal Casinos in Maine

Indian gaming has never been approved in the state. While there have been numerous bills proposed over the course of many years, none of them have ever had enough support to gain approval in the state legislature.

But the California case has been generally interpreted to mean that tribes can legally offer any form of gaming that is offered elsewhere in the state, and Bear hopes that getting a similar determination in Maine can help repair that frayed relationship between the tribes and the government, while also benefitting the state.

“This time is right,” Bear said. “I think the court will see this as the opportunity to help balance the relationship that has gone off the path and that they’ll see this as saving lives [through the funding of public health initiatives] and helping to bring about healing.”

If Bear gets the opinion he’s looking for, that would also mean that Native American tribes wouldn’t need the permission of state voters to build casinos on tribal lands, something commercial developers might wish applied to them as well.

Last November, Maine voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to build a new casino resort in York County. Despite the fact that over $8 million was spent on the pro-casino campaign, 83 percent of voters came out against the plan.

To add insult to injury, the groups behind the effort were fined a record $500,000 by the state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices for failing to properly disclose where the money for the campaign came from.