High court won't hear Catawbas' appeal

The Catawba Indian Nation ran out of legal options Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal that may have legalized video poker at the tribe's York County reservation, tribal attorney Jay Bender said.

Bender said the high court's decision to reject the appeal without comment is a legal dead end in the Catawbas' two-year fight for video poker games.

"The U.S. Supreme Court is the supreme court. There are no more opportunities for legal review." he said.

Bender said the tribe now has two options -- give up on video poker or try the "unlikely" possibility of legalizing the games through political process. "I'm sure the tribe will look at all the options," Bender said.

Catawba Chief Donald Rodgers remained optimistic Monday.

"Just because the Supreme Court didn't hear the case doesn't mean they wouldn't agree with us," Rodgers said, noting the highest court in the nation receives thousands of petitions annually and only hears a handful of cases. "This is a setback, but we still have other opportunities. We'll survive."

The Catawbas, South Carolina's only federally-recognized Native American tribe, sued the state for video poker rights in 2005, claiming their 1993 land settlement with the federal government allows them to operate video poker games.

But the S.C. Supreme Court, after several earlier legal rounds, decided in March that the state's ban of video poker in 2000 also applies to the Catawbas' tribal land.

"This is another example of how the United States and South Carolina is screwing Indians," Bender said.

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster applauded the court's latest action.

"We believe our S.C. Supreme Court answered all the questions correctly," he said Monday in a written statement. "We are pleased the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to consider anything further."

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, an opponent of expanded gambling, also hailed the decision.

"I think it's the end of the line for the idea of having video poker on the reservation," he said.

Hayes thought it unlikely that the Legislature would change state law to allow for expanded gambling. A push to allow high-stakes bingo two years ago found little support. However, he did worry that the Catawbas could try to lobby Congress.

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., whose district includes the Catawba reservation, couldn't be reached.

Rodgers, elected chief in July, said the state ruling is out of line because the 1993 settlement shouldn't be trumped by the state's ban seven years later.

"It's a sad situation," Rodgers said. "They can change the rules on you, but you can never change the rules on them."

While some tribe members said the video poker fight was going to be a bargaining chip for a high-stakes gambling operation along Interstate 95, Rodgers said video poker would have ensured the tribe's economic survival.

Now, instead of dwelling on video poker, the tribe will re-focus its efforts on launching a bingo hall to generate revenue, Rodgers said.

The tribe has been without a major revenue stream since its Cherry Road bingo hall was closed and sold to the developer of a Super Bi-Lo last year. Attempts to open bingo operations in Myrtle Beach and Orangeburg in recent years have failed, too.

The settlement allows the tribe to operate two bingo halls in South Carolina, one on the tribe's original land (parts of York, Chester and Lancaster counties) and another anywhere in the state that gives local approval, Rodgers said. Although, the state's Education Lottery and taxes on bingo have diminished the game's profitability, he said.

"It's a sad situation. We need economic options so we're not dependent on the government," the chief said. "We're going to test some waters and get something else going."

Rodgers acknowledged talks are under way with a developer in Marion County for a bingo hall at the former Carolinas' Amphitheater but said a contract hasn't been signed. He also said the possibility of suing for video poker again in the future isn't out of the question.