Native American tribes file lawsuit to have controversial gaming compacts declared invalid under federal law


Photo provided by Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Four Native American tribes filed a lawsuit Friday against multiple parties, including Gov. Kevin Stitt, seeking a declaration that the Comanche Nation’s and Otoe-Missouria Tribe’s recent gaming compacts with the state are invalid under federal law.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Citizen Potowatomi nations field the lawsuit under the Administrative Procedures Act against the Department of the Interior, Stitt, Comanche Nation Chairman William Nelson Sr. and Otoe-Missouria Tribe Chairman John Shotten.

The four tribes are seeking declaration that the Department of the Interior violated Federal law by allowing the agreements Stitt signed with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe to take effect under Federal law as having been deemed approved.

Attorneys for the four tribes issued the following statement:

“Four Tribes today initiated a lawsuit to declare the Comanche Nation’s and Otoe-Missouria Tribe’s gaming agreements invalid for purposes of Federal law. While the Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared those agreements invalid under Oklahoma law, their validity under Federal law must also be addressed to avoid damage to the integrity of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a statute that provides the bedrock to a significant portion of Oklahoma’s economy. The Tribes filed this suit to protect IGRA’s established framework and the Tribal operations conducted under it.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on July 21 ruled the state’s new compacts with the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche tribes were invalid.

Those new compacts called for exclusivity fees and allow sports betting and new casinos closer to larger cities.

Stitt made the new compacts with the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche tribes following months of disagreements with Native American tribal leaders regarding renewal of the longstanding compacts between the state and the tribes.

Thirty-five Native American tribes, under the longstanding compacts, pay Oklahoma more than $140 million a year in gaming exclusivity fees from casinos. Stitt and some other state leaders, however, felt that the tribes should be paying more.

Oklahoma tribes earn about $4.5 billion each year from casino-style gaming, which is classified as Class III gaming. Anywhere from four to 10 percent of that money goes back to the state in exclusivity fees.

Photo goes with story
Photo provided by Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association

The 15-year compacts between the state and the tribes were set to expire in January 2020. Stitt sent a letter to the leaders of the 35 tribes, telling them that it was time to renegotiate the terms of the compacts.

The tribes, however, asserted that the compact automatically renews if new agreements are not reached.

“Unlike contracts, compacts are solemn agreements between two sovereigns that remain in force until both parties agree otherwise,” said Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby. “Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman issued a powerful legal opinion that reinforces our confidence that the compacts automatically renew on January 1. The State of Oklahoma listed certain conditions for automatic renewal in the compact they offered to the Tribes. That compact was accepted by the Tribes and approved by the federal government. We have honored the terms of the compact and intend to continue operating under that renewing agreement, and we expect the State to do the same.”

The compact’s Part 15 B. states, “This Compact shall have a term which will expire on January 1, 2020, and at that time, if organization licensees or others are authorized to conduct electronic gaming in any form other than pari-mutuel wagering on live horse racing pursuant to any governmental action of the state or court order following the effective date of this Compact, the Compact shall automatically renew for successive additional fifteen-year terms.”

Stitt contended that if an agreement was not reached by Jan. 1, that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma. When negotiations stalled, Stitt said that the only solution would be for the tribes to sign an extension for the compact.

Otherwise, he said that the lack of progress could affect the jobs of employees and vendors at casinos around the state.

“We do not want gaming to be illegal, and we do not want vendors to be operating illegally,” Stitt said in December.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations took the issue to federal court, filing a lawsuit “to bring an end to the uncertainty Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt has attempted to cast over Tribal gaming operations.” They were later joined by the Citizen Potawatomie Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Quapaw Nation, Delaware Nation, Seminole Nation, and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

The lawsuit sought a judicial declaration that the gaming compacts renew.

Tribal leaders say that Stitt’s argument that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma has caused vendors to express concerns about the future. They say they had no other choice than to take the case to a higher court.

“The Governor’s stance on the gaming compact has created uncertainty and has been seen as a threat to our employees and our business partners. We see this legal action as the most viable option to restore the clarity and stability the Tribes and Oklahoma both deserve by obtaining a resolution that our compact does automatically renew. As elected leaders, it is our responsibility to uphold the compact, honor the will of the Oklahomans who approved State Question 712 and the Federal law that defines our relationship with the State on these matters,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.

“I am disappointed that a number of Oklahoma tribes, led by the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw Nations, did not accept the State’s offer on Oct. 28 for a three-person arbitration panel to resolve our dispute outside of court. This was a capstone action to their numerous refusals to meet with State and begin negotiations on the Model Gaming Compact to ensure a win-win for all parties by the end of this year. I was elected to represent all 4 million Oklahomans, and I will continue to be laser-focused on an outcome that achieves a fair deal and is in the best interest of the state and its citizens,” said Stitt after learning of the suit in December.

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay
Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

The Western District of Oklahoma released its decision on July 28, agreeing with the tribes that the gaming compacts automatically renew, and rejecting the state’s argument.

“For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiffs’ and Intervenors’ Compacts with the State of Oklahoma automatically renewed for an additional 15-year term on January 1, 2020, by operation of the unambiguous terms of Part 15(B),” the ruling stated.

Stitt has not yet made a decision on what course of action he will now take regarding the gaming compacts. The governor has also not yet released a statement regarding the new lawsuit.


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