After taking up a long-running legal dispute between the state of Texas and two Native American tribes over autonomy to regulate non-prohibited gaming on their lands and strengthened tribal sovereignty in the state, the Court sided with the two Native American tribes: the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Polk County and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe near El Paso.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices decided that Texas cannot prevent the tribes from offering electronic bingo gaming on these reservations. For decades, the Tiguas have battled the state in courts over expanding gambling on their land in a state which has some of the strictest gambling laws in the country. Texas has repeatedly blocked efforts in federal court, claiming the 1987 Restoration Act gave Texas the authority to regulate Tribal gaming on these reservations.
These reservations are unique in that both were restored to federal trust status in 1987 under the “Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama and Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act.” However, the Restoration Act contained a provision that barred these two tribal nations from conducting gambling activities that are prohibited by the state of Texas. The Kickapoo reservation near Eagle Pass does not fall under the same law, which is why that Tribal nation has been allowed to operate the Lucky Eagle casino.
Ysleta initiated the case, arguing that since Texas does not outright ban bingo, they can operate gaming facilities that offer bingo on their reservations. However, Texas argues it only allows charitable, not-for-profit bingo and the high-stakes, for-profit bingo offered on the reservations goes far beyond what the state allows. Both tribes argued a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1987 involving the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and the state of California supports their claims. That case established a difference between games outright banned by a state and games regulated by a state.
“The Court’s decision is an affirmation of Tribal sovereignty and a victory for the Texas economy,” Ricky Sylestine, chair of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ Tribal Council, said in a statement. “The highest Court in the land has made clear that our Tribe has the right to legally operate electronic bingo on our reservation, just as we have the past six years.”
But in the majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch emphasized that Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t mean Native American tribes can offer any games they choose in their lands.
“None of this is to say that the Tribe may offer gaming on whatever terms it wishes. The Restoration Act provides that a gaming activity prohibited by Texas law is also prohibited on tribal land as a matter of federal law,” Gorsuch wrote. Other gaming activities are subject to tribal regulation and must conform to the terms and conditions set forth in federal law.”
The case now returns to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for further deliberation.