In what has been considered a David versus Goliath court battle between the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and the state of Texas, the tribe has lost its fight to keep a modest electronic bingo hall open in Livingstone, Texas, which is about 80 miles northeast of Houston. While the tribe claims that it has the sovereign right to operate the Naskila Gaming facility, the historically anti-casino-style-gambling Texas officials say it’ is illegal.
On Feb. 6, the Hon. Keith Giblin, a federal magistrate judge, ruled the bingo hall run by the tribe does not comply with the gaming laws and regulations of Texas, which made the case for the closure of the facility stronger. However, Giblin did express sympathy for the tribe’s position, saying the tribe was unnecessarily bearing the brunt of conflicting statutory schemes, which he said could be considered unjust.
The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe has been running the Naskila Gaming entertainment center since it opened in 2016. Named for the Coushatta word for the dogwood trees that are abundant in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the facility has created more than 400 jobs, including about 200 for the 1,200 tribe members, and has added more than $5 million to the local economy, according to Carlos Bullock, a former chairman of the tribal council.
A victim of wrong timing
The tribe believes the bingo hall is a legal enterprise under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. The act permits federally recognized tribes to run Class II gaming facilities, which include bingo and poker, on their sovereign lands without the state’s permission. The problem is when the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe was federally recognized in 1987, the law that restored its land and autonomy from the federal government — the Restoration Act — also made it illegal for the tribe to engage in any gaming activities prohibited by the state.
The Kickapoo Tribe of Texas was more fortunate. When it was federally recognized in 1985, it had obtained permission to operate a Class II gaming facility with impunity for 20 years on the Rio Grande border with Mexico.
The tribe was under duress
Attorneys for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe claim the tribe was “under duress” when agreeing to the 1987 law because some members of Congress threatened to block the passage of the Restoration Act if the tribe didn’t agree to the no-gaming provision. The judge agreed the tribe may indeed have been under duress, but he said the fact is not up for consideration by the court because 30 years have already passed.
The tribe wasted no time appealing the ruling. In it, the tribe said it was very disappointed with the ruling and it remains confident in its legal position. The tribe also requested the court to allow it to keep the facility open while the appeal is in process to save the 330 jobs provided by Naskila as Polk County’s third-biggest employer.
Background to the lawsuit
In 2002, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe had to shut down the casino it was operating after failing to comply with state law regarding gaming devices. But, the tide turned in the tribe’s favor when the National Indian Gaming Commission said the IGRA had “impliedly repealed” the Restoration Act of 1987. Subsequently, the tribe opened Naskila, which offers Class II games. The previously closed casino used to offer Class III games, such as slot machines, which are illegal in Texas.
But, the issue is not bingo, which is legal in Texas. The issue is that the Restoration Act prohibits the tribe from engaging in all gaming activities, whether Class II or Class III, according to Giblin.