SC Supreme Court says Catawbas can’t offer video poker on York County reservation

dworthington@heraldonline.comApril 2, 2014 

— The Catawba Indian Nation does not have the right to offer video poker on its reservation, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

But the tribe, at least for now, will continue pursuing a gambling casino at the reservation in eastern York County, Catawba Chief Bill Harris said.

Attorneys for the Catawbas had argued that their 1993 land settlement with South Carolina, combined with the state’s Gambling Cruise Act, gave the tribe the right to have gambling on its reservation.

The 1993 settlement said the Catawbas could offer gambling “to the same extent” that gambling is offered elsewhere in South Carolina. The Gambling Cruise Act authorizes gambling on cruise ships off the coast of South Carolina. The Catawbas argued that meant they could offer the same gambling on their reservation as the cruise ships offer.

But the Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a circuit court’s decision that the Gambling Cruise Act does not authorize the use of video poker anywhere within South Carolina, “be it on land or within the state’s territorial waters.” The ruling, written by Justice Donald W. Beatty, also noted that the Gambling Cruise Act contains specific language that it does not “repeal or modify existing law.”

State law bans video poker.

Harris said Wednesday the court’s ruling makes it “more difficult to operate a viable casino on the reservation,” but added the tribe remains committed to casino projects on the reservation, as well as in Gaston County, N.C.

He said the tribe will consider its options, one of which could be a suit in federal court. Whatever decision the tribal leadership makes must be voted on by the full tribe, he said. The next tribe meeting is scheduled for July.

Harris said the tribe is not “hanging its future on gambling,” but noted casinos have “proven their worth to tribes and to the states where the casinos are located in.”

This is the second time the issue has come before the S.C. Supreme Court, with similar results.

The tribe argued that its gaming rights were unique, based on the 1993 settlement. The tribe argued the Gambling Cruise Act “had no geographic component” and that the tribe was “not like everyone else in the state.”

The state Supreme Court agreed the tribe is “not treated the same as everyone else in certain respects of the law. However, none of the examples pointed out by the tribe involve video poker. Moreover, in regards to ‘video poker or similar electronic devices,’ the tribe has specifically agreed to be treated like everyone else.’”

Harris said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the court’s decision. “When you look at the history of South Carolina and the Catawbas, history repeats itself. South Carolina has again reneged on its deals with the Catawbas. They promise one thing and do something else.”

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, applauded the court’s decision. Hayes has consistently opposed the tribe’s efforts to bring gambling to York County.

Hayes said York County’s previous experiences with video poker show that “it’s the crack cocaine of gambling and we need to keep it out of the state, period.”

Hayes said he also opposed any other forms of gambling found at casinos such as craps or roulette. “I put them in the same category as video poker,” he said.

Wednesday’s opinion involved the latest in a series of judicial arguments the Catawbas have made since the 1993 settlement with the state over 144,000 acres of tribal lands in York, Chester and Lancaster counties.

As part of the settlement, according to the state Supreme Court, the tribe waived its right to be governed by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and agreed to be covered by the terms of the settlement agreement and state regulations on gaming.

In 2005, the tribe sued the state, contending the settlement and the state law authorized them to have video poker “to the same extent” as allowed by state law and that video poker was legal at the time of the settlement agreement. Video poker became illegal in South Carolina in 2000.

In 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled the tribe could not have video poker on its reservation because the state had banned video poker machines.

In 2012, the tribe filed suit in Richland County against the state, seeking a declaration of its rights to video poker under the 1993 settlement and the Gambling Cruise Act.

The circuit court found the tribe’s action was precluded because of the 2007 case. That court additionally found that the Gambling Cruise Act did not authorize video poker or alter the statewide ban on video poker.

The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the tribe’s 2012 suit was not precluded by the 2007 case because the issues argued in the 2012 case were slightly different.

The Supreme Court wrote that the Gambling Cruise Act was never raised in the first case and the issue before the courts was the effect of the Gambling Cruise Act on the tribe’s rights.

The Catawbas are the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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