Martha's Vineyard tribe wins court appeal

Island bingo hall could be in the cards, but Supreme Court appeal may be considered.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe won its appeal in federal court. The tribe had proposed a bingo hall in this community center on reservation land. —File photo by Nelson Sigelman

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), paving the way for the tribe to open a bingo hall in a building that had been set aside as a community center.

The three-judge panel has remanded the case to U.S. District Court in Boston, which had previously ruled against the tribe’s rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the tribe’s chairwoman, applauded the court ruling.

“We are simply thrilled with the First Circuit Appellate Court’s decision,” she wrote. “The decision is exactly on point and supports the Tribe’s legal position.  Hopefully this decision will help people better understand the responsibilities, rights and privileges of our Tribe.

Aquinnah town leaders will meet with counsel Thursday at 1 p.m. to discuss options including a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ronald Rappaport, the town’s attorney, told the Times Tuesday.

The board of selectmen will discuss all of its options at that meeting, which is likely to be behind closed doors, Mr. Rappaport said. “The Supreme Court is one of those options,” he said.

Monday’s appeals court decision came as a surprise given that the town has had other court rulings go in its favor. “Obviously, we won at the U.S. District Court,” Mr. Rappaport said. “This reverses that decision.”

The central issue in the case has been the tribe’s rights under that federal law. The Town of Aquinnah and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have argued the tribe waived those rights in a 1987 land settlement.

The tribe’s contention, which the three-member appeals panel unanimously accepted, is that the 1988 law giving tribes the right to provide gambling on reservation lands superseded that agreement.

“As we have always asserted, the Aquinnah Wampanoag has every right to conduct gaming on our Tribal Lands just as any other Tribe in the country,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais wrote. “This decision affirms our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the land that has always been ours and solidifies our place in the gaming market.”

She called on the state, town and Aquinnah taxpayers association to respect the decision. “All tribal economic development is for the express purpose of providing the necessary governmental programs and services for tribal members, but those benefits expand to the community as a whole,” she wrote. “This decision benefits us all.”

The court ruling is a potentially punishing blow to the town, which has resisted the tribe’s gambling plans, and it could have an impact on the state’s fledgling casino industry.

Aquinnah leaders wanted to compete for a set aside in the state law for a tribal casino off-Island, but those plans on the Freetown/Lakeville town line were thwarted by the state’s refusal to negotiate a compact with the tribe.

Meanwhile, state leaders embraced a proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Taunton. The Mashpee tribe won federal acknowledgement in 2007, a decision that helped drive the state’s pursuit of legalized casinos. The Mashpee casino proposal is tied up in the federal courts.

The state has licensed two commercial casinos — one in Everett and another in Springfield — that are under construction. A slots-only casino is already operating in Plainville.

Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, wrote in a text message that she is checking with commissioners to see if there will be any public comment on the court ruling.

Mr. Rappaport said there are other avenues available to the town, but he declined to outline them. “It’s not appropriate at this time,” he said.

The tribe was represented by Scott Crowell, Lael Echo-Hawk, Chris Rule, Jody Cummings, and John Duffy, as well as the tribe’s host firm of Donoghue, Barrett and Singal. The tribe is taking time to review the decision before deciding its next move, Andrews-Maltais said.