Oklahoma high court says governor overstepped his authority

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
07/21/2020 02:00 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt overstepped his authority when he reached a casino gambling agreement with two Native American tribes, the state Supreme Court ruled on July 21.

In a 7-1 decision, the court determined the compacts Stitt signed with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes are “invalid under Oklahoma law.”

The deals would have allowed the two tribes to offer wagering on sporting events and house-banked card and table games. The compacts also would have allowed the tribes to construct casinos closer to larger population centers, and would have given the state a larger share of casino revenues from those casinos. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave tacit approval to the compacts in June following the expiration of a 45-day review period.

But because wagering on sporting events and house-banked card and table games haven’t been authorized by the Legislature, any revenue from such games is prohibited, the court ruled.

“The court must, therefore, conclude Governor Stitt exceeded his authority in entering into the tribal gaming compacts with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes that included Class III gaming prohibited by the State-Tribal Gaming Act,” the court wrote.

Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema says the governor’s office was reviewing the court’s decision.

In a dissent, Justice John Kane, one of two Stitt appointees on the court, said he would have dismissed the case because the tribes are “indispensable parties” but were not part of the case.

The lawsuit challenging the compacts was brought by Republican legislative leaders. Oklahoma Republican Attorney General Mike Hunter also said the compacts were unauthorized and had urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject them.

In statements, Speaker of the House Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat praised the ruling for upholding separation of powers.

“From the start, this was about separation of powers, and the Supreme Court affirmed as much with a decisive ruling,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “Oklahoma and its tribal nations can move forward from this together as partners, as we have done for decades with great success.”

Treat, R-Oklahoma City, added: “When one branch of government acts outside of its authority, the other branches must take steps to restore the balance of power.”

Matthew L. Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, also released a statement supporting the court’s decision.

“We appreciate the speed with which the Oklahoma Supreme Court acted on the pro tem and speaker’s petition in this important matter,” Morgan said. “Today’s decision confirms what the tribes have been saying since Governor Stitt launched his go-it-alone drive to rewrite our compacts. We believe firmly that the state-tribal relationship works best when we each act within the roles we have under the laws.”

Meanwhile, the Republican governor remains locked in a legal dispute with several other Oklahoma-based tribal nations after three of the state’s most powerful tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations – sued the governor late last year. The key point of contention is whether the compacts signed 15 years ago automatically renewed on Jan. 1. Stitt’s position is that the compacts expired on Jan. 1, while the tribes contend all the requirements were met for the compacts to renew for another 15 years.

Casino gambling is a booming industry in Oklahoma, with 130 casinos dotting the state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style hotel casinos, many of them in border communities, since voters approved a gambling expansion in 2004. The fees the tribes paid to the state totaled nearly $150 million last year, most of which was earmarked for public schools.

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