Stitt’s request for federal legal opinion on authority rejected
OKLAHOMA CITY – After suggesting his court had no standing in a state dispute, a federal judge on June 15 declined to give Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt a legal opinion on the authority of the governor to negotiate gaming compacts with tribes in the state.
Western District of Oklahoma Chief Judge Timothy DeGiusti said in his ruling: “In the court’s view, it would be inappropriate for a federal court to interfere in the resolution of such a sensitive state law matter, which implicates important concerns of sovereignty and comity that underlie many federal abstention doctrines.”
DeGiusti’s four-page decision supports the contentions of the state lawmakers and the Oklahoma attorney general, and rebuffs Stitt’s request that mediation be delayed between the tribes and state regarding gaming compacts.
“The court did not direct the Governor or the State to participate in the mediation proceeding in any particular way,” DeGiusti wrote in his decision. “Nor did the court direct Governor Stitt to participate in the mediation with ‘full settlement’ authority, as argued in (the governor’s) motion.”
The extent of Stitt’s legal authority heads to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where oral arguments are scheduled for July 1.
The Judicial Center remains closed, and the court said on June 15 it planned to provide a live video stream.
Federal approval was granted on June 8 for new gaming compacts – by not acting on them during the 45-day window – between the state and the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe. The Cherokee Nation was quick to announce its opposition.
Stitt said at the time he was “extremely pleased” that the U.S. Department of the Interior had signed off on the compact agreements.
“I appreciate and respect the thoughtful leadership for (Otoe-Missouria) Chairman (John) Shotton and (Comanche) Chairman (William) Nelson who worked hard to secure fair terms for their citizens, and whose contributions throughout the negotiations ensured a more level playing field and modernized gaming market in Oklahoma,” Stitt said.
The two tribes had been party to a lawsuit initially filed by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations on Dec. 31 that was subsequently joined by other tribes. The litigating tribes want a legal interpretation of the gaming compacts, which they believe automatically renewed at the start of 2020. Stitt claims the compacts expired and must be renegotiated. The legal impasse is in mediation, though Stitt later requested a federal court ruling on a legal opinion issued by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter claiming the governor agreed to terms exceeding his authority.
“No federal official can give Gov. Stitt the authority he needed to legally bind the state to these compacts, and Interior officials were not willing to say that the compacts were consistent with the provisions of federal law,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Instead, the Department of the Interior dodged the question and left the governor, Comanche Nation, and Otoe-Missouria Tribe looking at months or years of continued litigation. It's hard to see how any of this equals a ‘win’ for Gov. Stitt or for the citizens of Oklahoma.”
The compacts left room for the tribes to offer sportsbook betting, which has never been approved by the Oklahoma Legislature. Hunter’s opinion, issued May 5, said he “concludes Governor Stitt was without legal authority to bind the State of Oklahoma to these agreements and therefore it cannot be said that the State has entered into a new gaming compact with these tribal nations.”
“The Department of the Interior’s thoughtless and irresponsible inaction on the compacts doesn’t change our conclusion that the governor lacks the authority to enter into compacts that include activities not legal in Oklahoma,” Hunter said after approval of the compacts. “The tribes cannot begin operating under the terms of these compacts until the many questions that remain pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court are resolved.”
State lawmakers had raised their concerns over Stitt’s request for a federal judge to intervene in a dispute that they considered a state issue. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), in an effort to keep the impasse under the state’s aegis, have asked for a ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“Federal judges decide matters of federal law, not matters of state law, and at issue is a matter of state law,” Treat said. “Asking federal judges to decide a matter of state law is a dangerous intrusion into states’ rights.”