Pope County Casino License Remains Fluid Following Arkansas Supreme Court Ruling

Posted on: November 25, 2023, 08:47h. 

Last updated on: November 27, 2023, 01:37h.

The Pope County casino license in Arkansas authorized by voters through a 2018 statewide ballot referendum remains in flux.

Pope County casino license Arkansas
A historical marker commemorates soldiers from Pope County, Arkansas, who fought in the Civil War. The Pope County casino license dispute continues, as two bids seeking the gaming concession carry on their legal fight in state court. (Image: Historical Marker Database)

The Arkansas Supreme Court last month upheld a lower judge’s ruling that the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) wrongly deemed Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) and Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, as the winner of the county casino license.

Cherokee Nation Businesses is the commercial gaming and hospitality unit of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, is fully owned by CNB.

The state’s high court ruled that ARC erred in qualifying the Cherokee bid because it violated Amendment 100 — the 2018 referendum that legalized a casino each in the counties of Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. The state Supreme Court said Amendment 100 required bids to come from sole entities, not a consortium such as the one from the Cherokees and Legends Resort & Casino.

There were also legal concerns raised about Legends Resort & Casino since the company, which was formed solely to operate the CNB Pope County casino, has no experience developing, owning, or operating a casino — though the Cherokees have decades of experience operating tribal casinos in their native Oklahoma. Amendment 100 said only applicants that can “demonstrate experience in conducting casino gaming” should qualify for consideration.

Sides Submit Briefs

ARC picked the Cherokee/Legends bid over one other qualifying proposal. That pitch came from a company called Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi-based riverboat operator.

In response to the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, ARC asked both sides to submit comments as to how each believes the state should proceed in further considerations of the Pope County casino license.

Attorneys representing the Cherokees’ bid have asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider upholding Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s opinion that the racing commission shouldn’t have considered their casino tender. Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is representing the Cherokees, wrote to the Racing Commission that he hopes the Supreme Court will provide further clarification.

“Supreme Court’s opinion is unclear on what steps are required to be taken next,” McDaniel said.

The Court focused its attention exclusively on the issue of having two names on the license,” he said. “Twice it speaks of vacating the license that was issued. However, the opinion remains silent as to whether Legends was a qualified applicant,” McDaniel wrote.

McDaniel said the court’s ruling “leaves open the door to an administrative fix.” That could include the Cherokees simply resubmitting their bid as a single entity, McDaniel reasoned.

Attorneys representing Gulfside believe ARC should go back to the drawing board and conduct a second bidding round.

Local Support

The 2018 referendum required that bids be accompanied by a letter of support from the county judge or the county quorum court. That component brought additional legal wrangling into the Pope County casino matter.

The Cherokee/Legends plan has the support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross. The Gulfside plan submitted its bid with a letter of support from Ed Gibson, who issued his backing to the plan just days before he exited the Pope County judge seat in December 2018.

The Cherokees successfully argued in court, in a separate case that made its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court, that Amendment 100’s language stating that “the” before “county judge” and “county quorum court” refers to the current judge or court, not a former or retired county judge.

Gulfside attorneys believe ARC resetting and conducting a second bidding round would clear the air and allow Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court to reconsider the best presentation.

“This will allow all potential casino applicants to seek local support from Pope County officials and submit an application to be considered on the merits by the Racing Commission,” Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry wrote.

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly referred to Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, as Legends Hospitality. Legends Hospitality has no legal involvement in the gaming license litigation.