Martha’s Vineyard Tribe Loses Lawsuit Appeal, Must Follow Local Regulations to Build Casino

  • The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head can still build a casino, despite the ruling
  • The tribe must adhere to local regulations and obtain the proper permits
  • The judges warned the town of Aquinnah that it can’t discriminate against the tribe
  • The lawsuit goes back to 2013, when the tribe wanted to open an electronic bingo hall
Aquinnah Beach on Martha's Vineyard
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard must obey local regulations and obtain permits to build a casino, according to an appeals court ruling in a lawsuit that dates back to 2013. [Image:]

Can still build, it’s just harder

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts has lost a ruling in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, slowing its efforts to build a 10,000 square-foot casino. All is not lost for the tribe, however, as Thursday’s ruling does not prevent it from building, but rather requires it to follow local zoning regulations and acquire permits.

nothing about this opinion changes the fact that the tribe can conduct gaming on our settlement lands.”

In a text message to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, tribal council chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais wrote that while the tribe is disappointed, “nothing about this opinion changes the fact that the tribe can conduct gaming on our settlement lands.”

She added that neither the town of Aquinnah nor Martha’s Vineyard can use permitting as an excuse to prevent the tribe from building its casino.

Aquinnah board of selectmen chair Jim Newman expressed his desire to sit down and have an amicable relationship with the tribe, adding: “The sooner we can get back to normal relations, the better it will be for everyone. We want to constructively move forward.”

Judge warned town to behave

In their ruling, the appeals court judges encouraged the opposing parties to work together on a solution so that more litigation would not be necessary. They also echoed some of the same sentiment as Ms. Andrews-Maltais, explaining that if the town wants to enforce local regulations in a way that “interfere(s) with the integral activities of gaming” in an unanticipated way, the tribe could take up its case again.

The court also said that any local law that “precludes” a casino is not necessarily a “gaming law” just because it does that.

the town cannot discriminate against the tribe

The judges’ decision stressed that the town cannot discriminate against the tribe, that laws cannot be enforced “in a nonneutral way in order to unduly burden or harass the tribe or to prevent them from opening the casino.”

Long road to a conclusion

The case dates all the way back to December 2013, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick sued the tribe when the tribe wanted to convert a community center into an electronic bingo venue. He had not been willing to have the state enter into a compact with the tribe when casinos were legalized a couple years earlier.

In March 2014, the tribe got the case moved from the state level to federal court so that it could lean on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). In 1987, the tribe settled a lawsuit by accepting 400 acres of land in exchange for waiving its gambling rights and agreeing to obey local zoning laws. IGRA went into effect the following year, so the tribe now argued that IGRA superseded the lawsuit settlement.

it looked like the tribe had won

In March 2015, a US District Court judge sided with the state, so the tribe appealed. In April 2017, the US First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and refused a request by the state and town the following month to rehear the case. The US Supreme Court refused to hear it, as well, so it looked like the tribe had won.

But in June 2019, a federal judge said that the tribe could build a casino, but it had to apply for local permits, rather than doing what it wants to do on its own sovereign land. The tribe appealed and the judge required that the casino project be paused.

And now, the appeals court has sided with the state. In the end, the state won on a technicality, as the judge ruled that in the original case, the tribe did not include the zoning laws in its argument and therefore cannot include them in its appeal. So while the tribe is permitted to build a casino, it has to work with the town and abide by local regulations.

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