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Oklahoma Supreme Court: Stitt Overstepped with Tribal Gaming Deals

Baishampayan Ghose

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt overstepped his authority when he reached a casino gambling agreement with two Native American tribes, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In a 7–1 decision, the high court determined the compacts Stitt signed with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes are “invalid under Oklahoma law.”

The deals would have allowed the two tribes to offer wagering on sporting events and house-banked card and table games. The compacts also would have allowed the tribes to construct new casinos closer to larger population centers, and would have given the state a larger share of casino revenues from those new casinos. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave tacit approval to the compacts in June following the expiration of a 45-day review period.

But because wagering on sporting events and house-banked card and table games haven’t been authorized by the Legislature, any revenue from such games is prohibited, the court ruled.

“The court must, therefore, conclude Governor Stitt exceeded his authority in entering into the tribal gaming compacts with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes that included Class III gaming prohibited by the State-Tribal Gaming Act,” the court wrote.

Otoe-Missouria Tribe Chairman John R. Shotton said in a statement that the Oklahoma Supreme Court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to invalidate the tribe’s compact.

“We have said all along we do not plan to offer house-banked card and table games and event wagering until they are authorized by state law,” Shotton added. “Indeed, this condition was part of the compact, and it was unfortunately overlooked by the court.”

Stitt said the court’s decision, along with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined much of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation, leaves much work to be done with the tribes.

“Oklahoma must address the entire gaming framework to ensure that all federally recognized tribes can legally game and enjoy all the privileges conferred by (the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” Stitt said in a written statement.

In a dissent, Justice John Kane, one of two Stitt appointees on the court, said he would have dismissed the case because the tribes are “indispensable parties” but were not part of the case.

The lawsuit challenging the compacts was brought by Republican legislative leaders. Oklahoma Republican Attorney General Mike Hunter also said the compacts were unauthorized and had urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject them.

In statements, Speaker of the House Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat praised the ruling for upholding separation of powers.

“From the start, this was about separation of powers, and the Supreme Court affirmed as much with a decisive ruling,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “Oklahoma and its tribal nations can move forward from this together as partners, as we have done for decades with great success.”

Treat, R-Oklahoma City, added: “When one branch of government acts outside of its authority, the other branches must take steps to restore the balance of power.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who walked away from Stitt's gaming compact negotiations late last year, echoed McCall and Treat's statements.

"The Supreme Court affirmed what my office has opined, and the pro tem of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives have argued all along, the governor lacks the authority to enter into and bind the state to compacts with Indian tribes that authorize gaming activity prohibited by state law," Hunter said in a statement.

Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matthew Morgan thanked the court for a quick decision.

"Today’s decision confirms what the tribes have been saying since Governor Stitt first launched his go-it-alone drive to rewrite our compacts. We believe firmly that the State-Tribal relationship works best when we each act within the roles we have under the law," Morgan said.

OIGA suspended the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and Comanche Nation for the rest of the year after they struck their new compacts with Stitt.

Meanwhile, the Republican governor remains locked in a legal dispute with several other Oklahoma-based tribal nations after three of the state’s most powerful tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations — sued the governor late last year. The key point of contention is whether the compacts signed 15 years ago automatically renewed on Jan. 1. Stitt’s position is that the compacts expired on Jan. 1, while the tribes contend all the requirements were met for the compacts to renew for another 15 years.

Casino gambling is a booming industry in Oklahoma, with 130 casinos dotting the state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style hotel casinos, many of them in border communities, since voters approved a gambling expansion in 2004. The fees the tribes paid to the state totaled nearly $150 million last year, most of which was earmarked for public schools.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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