After months of official silence, the state has finally tipped its hand on the Alabama-Coushatta tribe reopening their casino on the reservation just outside of Livingston.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, filings in the Lufkin federal court indicate Texas officials are against it.
However, this time around, the Alabama-Coushatta are also okay with taking the question of whether the reservation has the right to offer class II gaming and bingo or not, according to tribe spokesman Carlos Bullock.
It's clear in a joint motion filed earlier this month that the state and the tribe are actually working together at this point. If a judge signs off, the parties will realign so the state is the plaintiff and the tribe is the defendant. And this is all fine with the Alabama-Coushatta. Really. That's partly because they believe they've got a much more stable legal stance this time around, tribe spokesman Chuck McDonald says.
“Remember, the tribe did not open Naskila Gaming until it had secured authorization through the National Indian Gaming Commission, and the tribe notified the state of its plans,” McDonald says. “I think we're trying to do everything properly. The bottom line is it's a complex issue looking at where we really intersect between state, federal and tribal law.”
It's a marked contrast from the last legal battle over whether the Alabama-Coushatta had the right to run a casino on the reservation. Back in 2001, the Alabama-Coushatta opened their casino on the reservation, and they found out why casinos are such a lucrative venture. It brought jobs to the community and, even better, pulled in money.
The casino lasted only about nine months. Texas officials are big fans of gambling, and they took the tribe to court when the casino opened. The case bounced through the court system, with the state insisting that the tribe was bound to follow state gaming laws, while the tribe maintained that they were governed by federal law and thus were allowed to have gaming on their reservation. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas and the casino's doors were closed.
Tribe members have been fighting to reopen the casino ever since, lobbying the Texas Legislature, the federal government, the National Indian Gaming Association and anyone they thought might be able to help them.
Finally, last October, the tribe asked the Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Association to clarify the tribe's legal standing, gambling-wise, and the two entities decided that the Alabama-Coushatta (along with the Tigua, a tribe located on a reservation near El Paso) have the right to offer bingo and electronic bingo on their reservation. Ever since then, Bullock and the rest of the tribe have been waiting to see if state officials would respond to the decision, but state officials have stayed quiet, Bullock says.
State officials didn't respond when the tribe announced they were renovating the old casino space, hiring about 200 people, offering full-time jobs with benefits, or when the tribe gathered in front of Naskila, the newly renamed casino, and blessed the space before opening for business at the end of May. The two sides had previously agreed to hold off on any enforcement action until state regulators inspected the gaming activities. The state inspected the gaming at Naskila in June and filed the first motion shortly after, according to the court records.
In late June, the state replied in court by filing a motion to realign the parties. This time, the tribal leaders decided to take a different approach. Instead of automatically opposing the state, their attorneys contacted state lawyers, talked and agreed the realignment made sense for both sides. The state and the tribe recently filed a joint motion to designate the state as the plaintiff and the tribe as the defendant.
The Alabama-Coushatta have always tried to do things according to the letter of the law, McDonald says. Once they realized the state's official response would be in court, they decided to approach this move as a positive for both parties.
This doesn't mean the actual point of contention — whether or not the Alabama-Coushatta have the right to have gaming on their reservation — has in any way ceased to be an issue. If Lufkin's federal court approves the motion, the state intends to file a motion of contempt against the Alabama-Coushatta, according to court documents.
But this time around, the Alabama-Coushatta seem to be pulling a judo move on the state, because instead of pushing back against the state's litigious impulses, they are welcoming this, McDonald says.
Because they really want to know what the law says too, McDonald says. Specifically, both sides want to know in a nice, clear-cut, legal way if the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act — the one cited in the National Indian Gaming Commission's 2015 letter concluded — applies to the tribe, as the tribe claims. Or is the tribe bound by the state restoration act, as Texas contends? “From our standpoint, we think clarity is needed, and we think this lawsuit will ultimately provide that clarity,” McDonald says.
The state is being circumspect about its stance, as usual.
"We aren't going to be able to comment on that because it's still ongoing," Jennifer Speller, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's Office, told us.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.