Oklahoma Supreme Court hears oral arguments over compacts
Leaders from the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe meet with Gov. Kevin Stitt in April during a press conference regarding the two tribes’ new gaming compacts with the state. KTUL CHANNEL 8
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oral arguments were made July 1 in an Oklahoma Supreme Court case concerning the validity of gaming compacts made between the governor and two Native American governments.
Phillip Whaley, representing Gov. Kevin Stitt, asserted that the court had no jurisdiction because the U.S. Department of the Interior approved them following federal law. Attorneys for the Oklahoma Legislature and Office of the Attorney General argued that the state court does possess the jurisdiction to nullify the compacts with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and Comanche Nation.
The arguments were made before court referee Ann Hadrava, who will pass information to the justices. Hadrava offered no anticipated date for a decision.
Arguments against Stitt included violation of the separation of powers. Attorneys claimed the governor exceeded his authority during negotiations by approving sports betting and other forms of gaming never legalized by the Legislature.
Conversely, Whaley said the Oklahoma court had no authority to undermine federal decisions concerning the compacts.
“There is nothing relating to this action that can undo the fact that these compacts have been approved under federal law,” Whaley said. “They are effective federal compacts. Regardless of what this court does, it can’t undo that. Perhaps a federal court could.”
Whaley further argued that the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and Comanche Nation, as sovereign nations outside state jurisdiction, could not participate in the defense of their compacts.
“Those tribes don’t even get a say,” Whaley said. “That is an insult to their sovereignty.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), in an effort to keep the compact impasse under state control, asked for a ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court. They were joined by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.
Cara Rodriguez, representing the lawmakers, said the compacts are within the Supreme Court’s oversight.
“This is a separation of powers case,” Rodriguez said. “The is not a contract interpretation case…. So long as one branch engages in an unchecked assertion of power, of course it’s going to end up here.”
Oklahoma Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani said the power to negotiate tribal gaming compacts does rest largely with the governor, but the executive cannot “authorize violations of state law.”
The Otoe-Missouria and Comanche 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 tribes want a legal interpretation of the compacts, which they believe automatically renewed at the beginning of 2020. Stitt claims the compacts expired in 2019 and is demanding the tribes renegotiate. The legal impasse was placed in mediation, though Stitt later requested a federal court ruling on a legal opinion issued by Hunter claiming the governor agreed to terms exceeding his authority.
As worded, the compacts would allow the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche tribes to offer sportsbook betting, which has never been approved by the 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.”
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.