Tribal Gaming

Federal Judge Rules for Catawba, Says EBCI Rolled “Snake Eyes” in Casino Case

A federal district judge in Washington, DC ruled Friday in a sometimes colorful opinion that the Catawba Indian Nation can proceed with plans to build and open a tribal casino in North Carolina.

A rendering of a temporary casino the Catawba Nation plans to open this summer. On Friday, a federal judge ruled in the nation’s favor in a lawsuit filed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that sought to block the South Carolina tribe from building a casino in North Carolina. (Image: Catawba Nation)

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) filed the case against the US Interior Department. The band claimed it did not follow federal law in granting the South Carolina-based Catawba a 16.6-acre parcel in North Carolina near Charlotte.

The Cherokees have long argued that the Catawba Nation only crossed state lines because it could not secure a gaming deal with officials in South Carolina. Leaders of the EBCI have also noted that a Catawba casino would have a significant economic impact on the band.

The band currently operates only two casinos in the state, in the far western edge near the Smoky Mountains.

EBCI also claimed that the land awarded to the Catawba contained artifacts that would get destroyed during the development of a $273 million resort in Kings Mountain, located about 30 miles west of Charlotte.

Plaintiffs raise several close and complex questions of statutory and regulatory construction, and the Court certainly cannot fault them for rolling the dice here,” US District Judge James E. Boasberg wrote. “In the end, though, they come up with snake eyes, as on each claim they either lack standing or lose on the merits.”

EBCI filed the lawsuit last May.

Court Ruling Pleases Catawba Leader

Catawba Nation Chief Bill Harris said the federal government “righted a historical wrong” in granting them the land. He added that Boasberg’s ruling showed the tribe had an ancestral presence in North Carolina.

“We hope this exhaustive review of the facts and emphatic 55-page decision means the Eastern Band will not seek a frivolous appeal, and that our two tribes can now work together for the betterment of our people,” Harris said.

Harris’ wish may not come to fruition. In a statement to the Cherokee One Feather, EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed hinted an appeal was possible.

“Our team is going through the ruling now and examining all options for next steps,” he said. “It remains clear to us that the law was broken, and we will not stop until justice is served in this case.”

Work is already underway on the Two Kings Casino Resort, and Catawba leaders plan to open a temporary casino this summer with 500 slot machines. It will be part of the larger resort, which is scheduled to open next year.

Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an Interior Department agency, formally approved the gaming compact between the Catawba and North Carolina. That will allow it to operate Class III gaming, which includes table games and sports betting.

“The facility is already creating construction jobs, and we look forward to its opening this summer to bring more jobs to Kings Mountain residents and further strengthen the local economy,” he said.

Economic Concerns Led to Casino Push

The primary reason the Catawbas are building a casino is to provide a more consistent revenue stream for its community. In his opinion, Boasberg noted the nation’s unemployment rate was three times higher than the combined rate of North and South Carolina. The median income was also about two-thirds of the combined states.

Boasberg noted that’s why the Catawba wanted to get into gaming at the beginning of his opinion. He even quoted a Frank Sinatra line from a movie to put it in perspective.

“‘Las Vegas is the only place I know where money really talks — it says, ‘Goodbye.’’ So says Frank Sinatra’s character in the 1957 film, The Joker is Wild,” Boasberg’s opening line reads. “Put differently: it’s good to be in the casino business.”

Two Kings, according to documentation submitted to BIA, said the resort will include about 195,000 square feet of “mixed-use entertainment,” including a 75,128-square-foot casino. The casino will hold about 1,800 slot machines and 54 table games.

The casino would also have dining facilities to accommodate nearly 950 people.

In all, Catawba officials expect the resort to create 2,600 jobs.  

Steve Bittenbender

Horse Racing, Sports Betting, Gaming Legislation, Midwest and Gulfport Casinos----Steve Bittenbender is a veteran reporter, and brings more than two decades of experience covering sports, gaming business, and politics and legislation to Casino.org, which he joined in 2019. Based in Louisville, Kentucky -- the epicenter of the US horse racing industry -- Steve has also covered major collegiate and professional sports for the Associated Press and the Louisville Courier Journal, and is frequently featured on local network TV newscasts and podcasts for his horse racing business and legislative expertise. A Reuters contributor, he has also previously served as editor for Government Security News. Steve lives with his wife and son, and is an avid poker player, having learned from his uncle as a wholesome after-school pasttime with cookies and milk. Email: stevebittenbender@casino.org

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Steve Bittenbender