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Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules Against Governor

Rulings by the U.S. and Oklahoma Supreme Courts are expected to have a major impact on gaming tribes in the state. The U.S. court, in a 5-4 decision, essentially gave half the state to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation based on the tribe's historical claim. And the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Governor Kevin Stitt (l.) exceeded his authority negotiating new gaming compacts.

The U.S. and Oklahoma Supreme Courts recently issued decisions with major implications for tribal operations. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a case that recognizes about half of the state as Muscogee (Creek) reservation land, based on the tribe’s historical claim. That means Native Americans who commit crimes on the eastern Oklahoma reservation, which includes much of Tulsa, cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement, and instead would be tried in tribal or federal courts.

The ruling also means tribal members who live within the reservation boundaries could become exempt from certain state obligations, like paying state taxes. The Muscogee (Creek) tribe also could gain more power to regulate alcohol sales and expand casino gambling. The other four of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma also are expected to be impacted by the ruling which originated from a rape case.

Muscogee leaders celebrated the high court’s decision as a hard-fought victory that clarified the status of their lands. Principal Chief David Hill said, “This is a historic day. This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court also made things right for state legislators who sued Governor Kevin Stitt over signing gaming compacts with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes. The justices ruled 7-1 the compacts are “invalid under Oklahoma law.” They would have allowed the two tribes to offer sports betting and house-banked card and table games. In addition, the compacts would have allowed the tribes to build new casinos closer to larger population centers with a larger share of casino revenue going to the state. The U.S. Department of the Interior approved the compacts in June following the expiration of a 45-day review period.

However, the court ruled since sports betting and house-banked card and table games are not currently allowed under state law, any revenue from those games is prohibited. “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.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter also said the compacts were unauthorized and had urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject them.

Following the state court’s decision, Otoe-Missouria Tribe Chairman John R. Shotton said 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. Indeed, this condition was part of the compact, and it was unfortunately overlooked by the court.”

Stitt commented, “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 spokesman Charlie Hannema said the governor’s office was reviewing the court’s decision.

State Senate President Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall also have sued Stitt for overstepping his authority in regard to new gaming compacts signed with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Kialegee Tribal Town. Neither tribe currently operates a casino. McCall said, “From the start, this was about separation of powers, and the Supreme Court affirmed as much with a decisive ruling. Oklahoma and its tribal nations can move forward from this together as partners, as we have done for decades with great success.” Treat added, “When one branch of government acts outside of its authority, the other branches must take steps to restore the balance of power.”

Another lawsuit against Stitt filed last year by the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations awaits action in federal court. The tribes claim their 15-year gaming compacts automatically renewed on January 1; Stitt claims they expired. He wants to renegotiate the compacts so the state receives higher revenue-sharing amounts.

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