Federal judge hears arguments in Wampanoag bingo case

All sides squared off in a Boston courtroom Wednesday in a case with significant implications for Aquinnah and the Island.

The Wampanoag tribe's never-completed community center and would-be bingo hall was the subject of a hearing in federal court Wednesday. — Photo by Michael Cummo

A federal judge on Wednesday declined to immediately rule on arguments presented by the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the groups seeking to block it from building an electronic bingo hall in Aquinnah.

Lawyers argued about overlapping federal statutes passed within a year of each other. In 1987, Congress placed 485 acres of tribal land into trust. The settlement agreement stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which sets up a framework for tribal gaming.

Two years after Massachusetts approved an expanded gambling law authorizing up to three resort casinos, the commonwealth sued the tribe in December 2013 after the National Indian Gaming Commission approved the tribe’s gaming ordinance.

Judge Dennis Saylor complimented all parties on their arguments, and said he would come to a decision “as quickly as I can.”

Appearing before Judge Saylor at the Moakley Courthouse, attorneys for the state, the tribe, the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, and the town argued for more than an hour about the extent of the tribe’s governance on its land, the intentions of federal lawmakers nearly three decades ago, and whether case law applies to the Aquinnah case.

Judge Saylor said for opponents of tribal gaming to prevail, they would need to distinguish the situation on Martha’s Vineyard from a 20-year-old case where a federal appeals court required that the state of Rhode Island enter into “good faith negotiations” on a gaming compact with the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Scott Crowell, an attorney for the tribe, said Congress’s passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “implied repeal” of any special restrictions on gaming in the special act, while Aquinnah town counsel Ronald Rappaport argued it would be nonsensical for Congress to supersede a law it passed only a year earlier. Mr. Rappaport also said the town prohibits gaming on the land in question.

Assistant Attorney General Juliana Rice noted the tribe’s agreement with the town stems from a 1974 lawsuit the tribe brought against the town. Ms. Rice said the omnibus Indian gaming law “did nothing to disturb” the agreement that gives the state jurisdiction over the land that was granted to the tribe in the settlement.

Massachusetts legalized casinos and a single slot parlor in 2011, reserving up to three casino licenses in the west, the southeast and the Metro Boston area, and establishing a special licensure process for tribal gaming.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick negotiated a gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build a casino in Taunton, but state gambling regulators have since moved on to the potential of a commercial casino in the area, as the tribe has so far been unable to establish the requisite federal land in trust.

Mr. Crowell said the state “refuses” to negotiate a gaming compact in good faith with the Aquinnah Wampanoags, and said Massachusetts has “turned its back on the very opportunity to have a voice” in its gaming plans.

On July 28, Judge Saylor enjoined the tribe from any further construction on the facility.

Tobias Vanderhoop, the chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, told the News Service the tribe could seek to expand beyond an electronic bingo hall, depending how the current project proceeds.

“This is a temporary project,” Mr. Vanderhoop told the News Service.

The building slated to become a bingo hall was originally intended to be a community center. The 6,500-square-foot building was erected at taxpayer expense just off the entrance road to the tribal lands by two teams of Air Force reservists in 2004 and 2005, as a civil engineering community project. The shell sat dormant and unfinished after the citizen-soldiers departed. If it moves forward with a gaming facility, the tribe would be on the hook for approximately $1.2 million in Housing and Urban Development grants appropriated for the community center.