Federal Judges Side With Texas in Fight Over Native American Gambling
The Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes may soon be forced to shutter their gaming operations after courts again rule them illegal.
Mar 29, 2019
Two Native American tribes find themselves increasingly desperate in their long-running efforts to legalize gambling on their Texas lands—a source of revenue they claim as vital to caring for their people. Courts continue to rule against them, and Congress has shown little interest in stepping into a decades-old conflict.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 14 upheld a trial court ruling that the Alabama-Coushatta tribe violated state law by offering bingo-based games in their Naskila Gaming facility near Livingston in East Texas. U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez issued an injunction on Thursday that limited the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso to offering only bingo, and not more than three days a week. Martinez stayed the injunction pending appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which has repeatedly ruled in favor of the state and against the tribes. The Supreme Court has so far declined to take up the issue. Naskila and the Tigua Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in El Paso remain open—for now.
“There are 371 full-time jobs at stake, and we have a moral obligation to fight for every one of the people working at Naskila Gaming,” Alabama-Coushatta chairwoman Cecilia Flores said in a prepared statement after the tribe’s most recent loss before the Fifth Circuit, vowing to ask the full court to review the panel decision. “Our alcohol-free facility is making a significant difference in the lives of East Texans, and we will continue to pursue every legal avenue to continue operating Naskila Gaming on our tribal lands.”
The battle revolves around the 1987 federal Restoration Act, which reinstated the U.S. government’s responsibility for Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta lands. Most Native American land is officially owned by the federal government but held for the benefit of a particular tribe, in what’s known as a trust relationship. From the 1940s through the 1960s, federal policy sought to assimilate Native Americans by eliminating recognition of many tribes and dissolving the trust relationships. That’s what happened to the Tigua (in 1968) and the Alabama-Coushatta (in 1954), when trusteeship of their lands was transferred to the state of Texas. However, in 1985, Texas attorney general Jim Mattox ruled that this trust relationship violated a 1972 state constitutional amendment, which left the tribes without any recognized legal status. Without a trust relationship with either the state or federal government, the tribes said, they faced bankruptcy or other financial challenges. So the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta sought to reinstate their federal recognition—and the access to federal services for tribes that accompany it—via the Restoration Act.
Pivotally, a provision of the act precluded the tribes from offering gambling that wasn’t legal elsewhere in Texas. A year later, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA, which allowed Native American tribes to operate bingo games and seek compacts with state governments to run other forms of gambling. The courts have repeatedly ruled that the Restoration Act prevents the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta from offering high-stakes bingo beyond the limits of state law. In a 1994 ruling cited in each subsequent court case, the Fifth Circuit said if the Tigua or Alabama-Coushatta want to permit gambling on their land, they “will have to petition Congress to amend or repeal the Restoration Act.”