Massachusetts Tribal Casino Legal Fight Expected to Conclude This Fall

Posted on: July 11, 2019, 01:16h. 

Last updated on: July 11, 2019, 01:16h.

The tribal casino dilemma in Massachusetts is scheduled to be resolved this October, as all parties involved in the legal battle have agreed to a set timeline.

tribal casino Massachusetts Mashpee Wampanoag
A several years-long legal battle over a tribal casino in Massachusetts is inching closer to a formal outcome. (Image: Charles Winokoor/The Herald News)

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wants to construct a $1 billion integrated casino resort in Taunton in the state’s southeastern region. But last fall, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) said it erred in taking 321 acres of land on two parcels into federal trust for the Massachusetts Native American group.

In court filings made public this week, the Interior Department, Taunton citizens, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe have all agreed to a set timeline to resolve the matter. The Cape Cod Times says the DOI must file its extended explanation for its September 2018 decision to refuse taking the land into trust by July 19. The tribe will then have one week to respond.

Both sides have August deadlines to respond to counter one another, and then must make summary judgements in September. The final conclusive DOI decision is due October 15.

Indian War

DC District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer is overseeing the case, and has denied requests for the litigation to go back to Massachusetts on grounds that the outcome has far-reaching “public interest factors.”

In her decision, Collyer explained, “This Court concludes that this case does not concern ‘the type of purely localized controversy’ that would warrant transfer to the local district court … but is focused on decisions made by DOI in Washington DC that have the potential to impact Indian Tribes across the country.”

The outcome will have a major impact on the Massachusetts gaming industry. State regulators are holding off on considering bids for the Region C permit – the third and final integrated casino resort license. The region consists of the southeastern counties of Bristol, Plymouth, Nantucket, Dukes, and Barnstable.

If the Mashpee Tribe gains DOI approval for its $1 billion casino dubbed First Light Resort, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is expected to annul the Region C opportunity on saturation concerns.

Path to Realization

Even if the DOI refuses to take the land into trust, the Mashpee tribal casino isn’t officially dead. That’s because Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is pushing federal legislation that would identify the 321 acres as sovereign territory.

President Donald Trump is against the bill. He tweeted in May, “Republicans shouldn’t vote for HR 312, a special interest casino bill backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally.”

The tribal casino bill passed the US House in May, and currently resides with the Senate.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government cannot designate land sovereign for tribes recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was federally recognized in 2007. However, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes that can adequately demonstrate historical ties to a region can have the land taken into federal trust through the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The legal matter is a complicated one, but should have more clarification in the coming months.