Fight over Texas tribal gaming lands before SCOTUS

The issue boils down to who has the authority to regulate gaming on these specific reservations.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a long-running legal dispute between the state of Texas and two Native American tribes: the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Polk County and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe near El Paso. The issue boils down to who has the authority to regulate gaming on these specific 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.

The issue before the US Supreme Court was initiated by Ysleta and supported by Alabama-Coushatta. Essentially, the tribes argue 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. The state is fighting to shut down gaming facilities on these reservations.

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.

You can read a transcript of the arguments made before the U.S, Supreme Court on Feb. 22, 2022. The court has not yet made a decision in this case.

“I just want to know when it’s our time to be treated fairly, we want the opportunity to be treated fairly,” said Nita Battise, vice-chair of the Alabama-Coushatta tribal council. “All we ask for is parity, fairness.”

The Alabama-Coushatta tribe opened the Naskila Gaming Center in 2016, a 15,000 sq. ft. facility that offers electronic bingo. Again, the tribe has argued since the state of Texas allows charitable bingo, they should be allowed to offer bingo games at Naskila. The tribe further argues its operation should be governed by the National Indian Gaming Commission, which was created by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

While the state has largely been successful over the years in arguing against gambling activities on these reservations, The Alabama-Coushatta tribe recently won a victory in federal court involving Texas’ attempts to shut down Naskila. Texas asked a federal judge to hold the tribe in contempt and issue an injunction to shut down the operation.

“The Restoration Act only prohibits on the Tribe’s lands those gaming activities that are “prohibited”—not regulated—by the laws of the State of Texas. Moreover, Section 207(b) of the Restoration Act bars the State from exercising regulatory jurisdiction, through civil or criminal means, over gaming activities conducted on the Tribe’s lands,” U.S. District Keith Giblin wrote in his Aug. 31, 2021 ruling. “Accordingly, the Tribe’s bingo gaming is not subject to the laws of the State of Texas unless and until the State of Texas prohibits that gaming activity outright.”

This ruling could be impacted the Supreme Court’s decision.

“What does Naskila allow the nation to do that it otherwise couldn’t do?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“It allows us to have possibilities,” said Battise.

According to tribal leaders, Naskila gaming has become the second-largest employer in Polk County, supporting 700 jobs.

“We’ve been able to employ tribal members, as well as people in the surrounding communities,” said Cheryl Downing, general manager for the tribe.

More than 80 civic and business groups have signed letters of support for Naskila.

“This is something that is good for our economy, it’s good for Texas,” said tribal council member Roland Poncho. “Our government goes all over the world asking for other nations to be fair, but yet, fairness starts at home.”

Poncho, Downing and Battise said proceeds from Naskila are vital to the more than 40 services the tribe provides such as police, fire, senior services, food distribution, housing and health care. Battise said revenues from Naskila allowed them to recently break ground on a new 49,000 sq. ft. education center on the reservation. Downing estimates the proceeds from Naskila make up approximately 70-percent of the tribe’s operating budget.

“It would be very devastating for our tribal community,” Downing said if Naskila was forced to close. “We would have to severely cut a lot of the services that we have to offer.”

In addition to the case pending before the Supreme Court, the tribe continues to push for support for H.R. 2208. The “Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Tribes of Texas Equal and Fair Opportunity Act” would ensure the tribes have the right to offer electronic bingo under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The bill passed the US House, but is stuck in the Senate.

KPRC 2 reached out to both Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Texas Attorney General’s Office for further comment, but have not yet received responses.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”