Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes file lawsuit over gaming compact
Cards lay on a gaming table at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa. Some card and electronic games are part of the Class III gaming tribes in Oklahoma provide in their respective casinos as part of the gaming compacts tribes have with the state. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt contends the compact ends on Jan. 1, 2020, while tribal officials say the compact renews. Three Oklahoma tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, sued Stitt in federal court asking for a judicial declaration that the gaming compacts renew on Jan. 1. ARCHIVE
OKLAHOMA CITY – Citing the uncertainty cast by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt over tribal gaming operations, the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 31 seeking a judicial declaration that the gaming compact with the state renewed on Jan. 1.
The nations provided a copy of the complaint to Stitt – named in his official capacity – along with a letter explaining reasons for the filing. Counsel for the nations, former U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Henry, provided a companion letter and copy of the complaint to Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.
The nations’ lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma to declare the legal effect of the compact’s Part 15.B., which 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.”
The nations emphasized in the letter to Stitt, “the dispute – like the lawsuit – is about renewal, not rates.”
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. repeatedly stated that Cherokee Nation casinos would be open for normal operations on Jan. 1.
In a symbolic gesture, Hoskin pulled the lever on an electronic gaming machine during the first few seconds of 2020. In 2019, Stitt claimed that Class III gaming would be illegal in 2020 at tribal casinos in Oklahoma without a new compact.
“We’re asking a federal judge to answer the question, does the compact renew,” Hoskin said. “We believe it renews, outside observers believe it renews, every tribal leader in the state believes it renews. The governor does not. And that’s why we had to go into federal court.”
According to Stitt’s Twitter account, the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band reportedly signed an eight-month compact extension, which gaming tribes rejected in 2019 after Stitt offered it. The post said the two tribes would continue to negotiate with the governor’s office. However, neither tribe operates any casinos.
A tweet on Stitt’s account read: “The State of Oklahoma offered an extension, with no strings attached, to all tribes that operate casinos in the state, and my door continues to be open for more tribes to join who are worried about impending uncertainty.”
While rumors and speculation have arisen about Stitt’s motives to press the tribes into negotiations, two lawmakers representing Cherokee County said they had no firm particulars to report.
“Oklahoma should not be going to battle with the best friends we have,” said State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah. “The tribes have always stepped up to help Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation has always stepped up to help northeast Oklahoma.”
Meredith said he couldn’t imagine the state’s situation without tribal assistance.
“When we rob our county commissioners of funds, the tribes help repair roads and bridges,” he said. “When we don’t properly fund education, the tribes get money to our schools. When we don’t want to fund health care, the Cherokee Nation builds a giant health care facility. I hope the governor opens his eyes.”
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said a gentler technique and language could have brought the sides together for civil discussion about possible changes to the compact.
“The way it was approached was not the way to approach it,” Pemberton said. “They could have asked tribal leaders if they would sit down for a visit. To throw it to the media and try to apply pressure was wrong, and it hasn’t been productive. The compact seems pretty clear – at least the way I see it – that it automatically rolls over unless both sides agree to open it back up.”
Pemberton said he expected the impasse would eventually end up in court.
“I figured neither side would say uncle,” he said. “This is like a civil war between our neighbors and friends. It’s never good, and it leaves lasting scars. I certainly don’t know of anyone in the Legislature that supports commercial gambling from outside interests. I hope we can get this behind us and move forward.”
The nations have offered statements and analyses that support their position on renewal, including a legal opinion by ex-U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman.
“The renewal provision in the Tribes’ gaming compacts with Oklahoma is not ambiguous,” Waxman wrote. “Under that provision’s plain language, the compacts will renew automatically when they expire on January 1, because the provision’s sole condition precedent for automatic renewal is unquestionably satisfied. Each of the contrary arguments I have seen to date simply cannot be squared with fundamental principles of contract interpretation.”
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said the tribes have a duty to protect the sovereign rights of tribal nations, as well as the interests of tribal citizens.
“While we prefer negotiation to litigation, the federal court is now the only reasonable alternative to bring legal certainty to this issue,” he said. “We remain hopeful we will continue to have a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the state of Oklahoma once we have resolved this issue.”
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton pointed to uncertainty among business partners and tribal employees because of Stitt’s actions.
“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,” Batton said. “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.”
Hoskin said the tribes were left with little choice but to file the federal suit.
“The Cherokee Nation is committed to being a good partner in our community and with the state of Oklahoma as we have done across two centuries and will continue to do as a peaceful, sovereign nation,” he said. “Gov. Stitt has made comments about ‘uncertainty that exists’ regarding Class III gaming after Jan. 1, threats to our casino vendors and their livelihoods and demands for redundant audits.”
Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matthew L. Morgan said the tribes remained united on the issue of the compact renewing automatically.
“We have communicated our position to Gov. Stitt on numerous occasions in hopes of finding a practical path forward benefitting both the state and tribes,” Morgan said. “That said, as leaders of sovereign nations, the tribal leaders must honor the compacts and will continue to do so on Jan. 1, 2020, as they’ve done the past 15 years. Tribal leaders have the right, as well as the responsibility, to protect their citizens. Tribal leaders applaud the action taken today by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations to seek certainty on the matter of automatic renewal through the federal court.”