Catawba casino case goes before SC high court

By Don Worthington

January 22, 2014 Updated 14 hours ago

COLUMBIA — How the S.C. Supreme Court interprets the phrase “to the same extent” may determine whether the Catawba Indian Nation can open a casino at its York County reservation.

Attorneys for the tribe and the state argued before South Carolina’s highest court Wednesday on whether the state’s Gambling Cruise Act, which allows video gambling cruises from the coast, applies to the Catawbas.

William Wilkins, an attorney representing the Catawba Indian Nation, said the gambling cruise act and the state’s 1993 settlement with the tribe, when considered together, give the Catawbas the right to have gambling on their reservation.

Assistant Deputy Attorney General C. Havird Jones, representing the state, said the phrase “to the same extent” means “authorized by the state Legislature.”

Justice Donald W. Beatty quickly focused on 2007 state Supreme Court decision that found the Catawbas could not operate video poker on their reservation.

Beatty interrupted Wilkins just seconds into his presentation, asking what was different this time. “How does the old court decision control this case?” he asked.

Wilkins said this case is not about the video poker ban, but whether gambling permitted through the Gambling Cruise Act is extended to the Catawbas through a clause in the 1993 settlement which reads the tribe may permit on its reservation “video poker or similar electronic play devices to the same extent that the devices are authorized by state law.”

The state’s Gambling Cruise Act allows gambling and that means it is allowed on the reservation, Wilkins said. He noted that the 1993 settlement between the state and the Catawbas “has no geographic component.”

Wilkins added if there is an ambiguity between the Gambling Cruise Act and the settlement, the application of the law is clear. Courts have constantly ruled “liberally in favor of Native Americans,” he said.

Jones, representing the state, said the 2007 Supreme Court case was extensive and covered “identical subject manner” now before the court.

To argue that the state’s Gambling Cruise Act allows gambling on the Catawba Indian Reservation is “plainly an absurd interpretation,” Jones said.

Wednesday’s hearing is the latest in a more than 20-year battle between the Catawbas and the state over exactly what the settlement means. Around 1992, the tribe sought to lay claim to more than 60,000 parcels of land in eastern York County as well as portion of Chester and Lancaster counties. A settlement was reached in 1993 that was signed by the tribe and state and recognized by Congress.

The settlement included the tribe’s right to open two bingo parlors in the state.

In 2000, South Carolina banned video gaming. In 2004 and 2005, the tribe filed suit, seeking to bring video poker to its reservation. The Catawbas, South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe, have argued the state’s education lottery significantly hurt its bingo business. In March 2007, the state’s Supreme Court ruled against the tribe.

In January 2012, the tribe announced plans for a gaming casino at the York County reservation which it estimated would employ 4,000 people during construction and operation and would generate more than $100 million in gaming fees and taxes for the state and local governments, according to an economic impact study the tribe commissioned.

In April 2013, a circuit court judge ruled against the tribe, setting up the appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The court actions come as the tribe is working to open new bingo parlor on Cherry Road and pursuing a casino in North Carolina.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris declined to discuss the North Carolina plans Wednesday but said the state Supreme Court discussions showed the court was clearly interested in the tribe’s arguments. He said a ruling will not only affect the Catawba Nation but all South Carolina residents. If approved, the Catawba casino would generate tax money that could be used for education, he said.

It is unclear when the justices will issue their ruling. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal has recused herself from the case because of previous work with the Catawbas.

Don Worthington • 803-329-4066

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