Attorney General rejects Aquinnah tribe’s claim

By: George Brennan

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office says a federal court decision on Indian casinos does not apply to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

Responding to a brief filed last week by the Martha’s Vineyard-based tribe in U.S. District Court, Coakley’s office filed a brief of its own Wednesday saying the Alabama case, which involved the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, does not support the island tribe’s claims that it is entitled to build a class II casino on its land in Aquinnah.

“Any comparison of (the Alabama) case to this case is unfounded,” the AG’s brief states.

Attorneys for the tribe wrote that the Alabama case supported their case because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act pre-empts any state law to the contrary when it comes to Indian casinos.

The key difference in the cases, according to the AG’s brief, is that both Alabama and the Poarch Band agreed that IGRA applied to their dispute. Coakley’s office contends that IGRA does not apply in the Aquinnah case because the tribe entered into a settlement agreement with the state in 1983 that was approved by Congress in 1987, requiring the tribe to follow state and local laws. In that agreement, the state has argued, the tribe waived any rights to a federal casino.

The tribe has received opinions from federal agencies that regulate Indian gaming contradicting the state opinion. Essentially, those federal agencies have said that federal Indian gaming laws supersede state laws, including settlement agreements.

Both the tribe and state are waiting for a decision from U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor on whether the dispute between the state and the tribe belongs in state or federal court.

In December, Gov. Deval Patrick filed suit against the tribe seeking to block an island casino after Aquinnah leaders openly discussed plans to convert a community center on tribal lands into a high-stakes bingo facility with machines that look and play similar to slot machines.

The Patrick administration cited a breach of contract by the tribe.

Tribe attorneys immediately sought to have the case moved to U.S. District Court, saying that the questions involve federal law.

Saylor heard oral arguments in the case last month and took the case under advisement.