Alabama Can’t Prohibit Indian-Land Casinos

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians won a much-watched case when U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins recently ruled the state of Alabama does not have the authority to ban casinos on Indian lands. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (l.) said the state will appeal immediately.

In a victory for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins recently ruled that the state of Alabama has no authority to prohibit the operation of casinos on Indian lands. Watkins wrote in his ruling, “The bottom line is that even if defendants are operating illegal class III gaming at the Poarch Band casinos, state law does not provide the state authority to prohibit such gaming.”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the state will appeal the ruling immediately with the full Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. “This decision puts us one step closer to a final resolution of this issue, which has been our goal all along. We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and intend to appeal.”

Tribal spokesman Robert McGhee said, “We are pleased with Judge Watkins’ well-reasoned decision. This decision not only recognizes the sovereignty of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, but it also confirms that the tribe’s lands are held by the United States of America in trust for the tribe.”

Watkins did not address the legality of electronic bingo in the state, noting that is irrelevant due to the tribe’s sovereign immunity. More importantly, his decision clarified a recent Supreme Court case that challenged the legality of tribal lands held in trust by the federal government for tribes that did not receive federal recognition before 1934.

Strange’s office said the Supreme Court ruling meant the Poarch Creeks had no right to hold sovereign lands that were not subject to state laws. But the tribe said the Supreme Court ruling was based on one irrelevant set of circumstances and did not apply. Watkins agreed with the tribe that the Supreme Court decision did not apply because a six-year statute of limitations has expired and the tribe has held the lands for decades.

The Poarch Band operates casinos with electronic games in Montgomery, Wetumpka and Atmore. Revenue from those casinos has steadily increased from 2008 to 2011. Recently the tribe stated its intentions to build on a parcel in northern Escambia County in Florida, a few miles away from its Atmore entertainment center. Tribal leaders asked Florida Governor Rick Scott last month if compact negotiations could begin soon. 

But Florida state Rep. Clay Ingram of Pensacola said, “Based on statements made by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, the issue of gaming expansion in Florida this year appears to be dead. With regard to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ building a gaming facility in Escambia County, my understanding is that there is a complicated process involving the federal government that would have to be navigated, and then the governor would have to agree to enter into compact negotiations with the tribe.”

Florida state Senator Greg Evers, whose district includes the Poarch Band-owned site, “I think the negotiation process is as clear as mud. There is too much here that is on the table to use a broad brush to say we accept, we deny, or we welcome with open arms. As far as the economic impact in the region I think the jury is still out whether the juice is worth the squeeze.”