Massachusetts Residents Still Oppose Tribe’s Casino Bid

U.S. District Court face

30-second summary

  • The Mashpee tribe in Massachusetts became federally recognized in 2007
  • Since then, the tribe have been trying to open a casino
  • Ongoing dispute is causing them significant financial trouble
  • The tribe is now suing the Department of the Interior for blocking the casino development

Background to this story

There has been a long-running argument between the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the state of Massachusetts. For some years, the tribe has been trying to get permission to build a 900-room casino hotel in Taunton, Massachusetts. However, constant legal action has prevented it.

Residents of Taunton have so far been successful with their blocking efforts. On February 4, 2016, 24 residents initially filed a lawsuit with Boston’s US District Court. They were seeking to reverse the decision by the federal agency to allow the tribe to have their casino.

The residents are claiming that the goal of the tribe is to “remove forever the land, currently held in fee simple by the Mashpees, from the tax and regulatory jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the County of Bristol, and the City of Taunton, and in the process create a tax-immune, regulation-free Indian reservation on which the Tribe is authorized to build and operate a Las Vegas-style casino resort called ‘First Light.’ ”

Serious struggles

In July 2016, the court ruled in favor of the residents. As a result of this ruling, the tribe has been struggling financially. The casino group that is backing the tribe in this project is a Genting Malaysia.

Genting has been struggling lately, with third-quarter losses of $440m (£340.6m) in 2018 as a result of promissory notes from the Mashpee tribe. The company recorded this as a loss because they are uncertain whether they can ever recover the debt.

The move by Genting brought a response from the tribe, which issued a statement about how vital the casino bill is for the longevity of the tribe. The statement said, in part: “Unless Congress enacts legislation now to prevent the Department of the Interior from disestablishing our reservation, in 2019 we will have to close programs, shutter our school, lay off our governmental employees, and witness the dissolution of all that we have achieved since our federal recognition was restored in 2007. It is almost impossible to describe the despair that the federal government’s continued inaction has brought to our people.”

The main issue still under debate is whether the tribe has the proper qualifications to have the federal government put this land into trust to categorize it as a reservation on behalf of the tribe.

While there are laws allowing this, a 2009 Supreme Court decision said that this could happen only if the tribe was federally recognized when the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was passed.

The Mashpee tribe was not recognized by the federal government until 2007. However, the tribe is arguing that in 1934 they were acting as part of federal jurisdiction even if they were not technically federally recognized.

Casino opening efforts

The Mashpee tribe has been trying to build a casino since they became federally recognized in 2007. Since November 2011, when resort casinos became legal in the state, the tribe has been eyeing one of the three licenses.

Two of these licenses are taken, and the final license appears to be meant for the tribe if it can overcome its legal trouble soon. This final license is for the southeastern part of the state, and the license fee will be $85m (£65.8m). The first resort casino, the MGM Springfield, opened in August 2018. The other resort casino is still under construction and will possibly open by June.

The Mashpee tribe entered into a compact with the state for their casino and broke ground in April 2016. Just three months later, the federal government sided with the residents and halted development.

While the tribe owns plots of land in the state, only one of them is suitable for a resort casino because of access requirements. This land is in Taunton, where the idea was initially met with open arms. The city thought that such a casino would lead to new jobs and economic stimulation. In a referendum in June 2012, 63% of the voters supported a casino.

The Department of the Interior in September 2015 entered an agreement to put land into trust for the tribe in Taunton and Mashpee. The tribe also bought an additional site in Taunton for the project. However, some Taunton residents in February 2016 filed a suit to overturn the granting of the federal decision to put the land into trust for the tribe. The Department of the Interior reversed its decision in July 2018.

Latest developments

Following the decision reversal, the Mashpee tribe filed a lawsuit against the department. This lawsuit claims that the defendant’s reversal ruling was capricious and arbitrary and that they did not consider the tribe’s evidence.

The department subsequently was granted a request to delay this lawsuit in November 2018. It was given until January 9, to investigate this lawsuit and to issue a response.

This issue will now go to court. The homeowners in Taunton are asking the US District Court if they can intervene in the lawsuit. They believe that they should have a role. This is because they do not believe that the Department of the Interior adequately will protect their interests in this dispute.