Experts, residents react to lawsuit against PCI

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Attorney General Luther Strange’s latest attempt to halt gaming at Poarch Creek facilities takes a unique approach: Strange asked the court to enjoin the tribe’s activities because they are, he said, “a public nuisance.”

“I have lobbied Congress to stop the expansion of Indian gambling to new areas, and I have filed a brief in the Alabama Supreme Court to oppose the Poarch Band’s efforts to use its land for gambling,” Strange said. “As I have said many times, my office will use every tool at its disposal to stop illegal gambling in Alabama, wherever it is located. This lawsuit against the Poarch Band is one of those tools.”

But a leading political expert in Alabama said that while Strange may have a case, he does not expect it to prevail.

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Bill Stewart, a political science professor emeritus who specializes in Alabama politics and has authored several books on the state’s

constitution, said Strange is likely fighting an uphill legal battle.
“It’s my understanding that gambling was allowed in the state on Indian land,” Stewart said. “My understanding was that they weren’t necessarily limited to the types of gambling they could operate. It’s iffy because Native Americans have been given quite a bit of latitude. I think that (Strange) does have a leg to stand on, but I think it’s going to be a difficult case to ultimately prevail on based on previous decisions related to Indian gaming.”

Stewart said the current laws protecting operations on Indian lands will be difficult to change.

“It is sufficiently ambiguous enough to warrant revisiting, but the outcome is by no means certain,” he said. “That’s my understanding, that they have latitude and are not strictly limited to what is authorized as far as the state is concerned.”

Stewart said, given the federal protection surrounding the casinos owned by PCI, many state residents may view the attorney general’s lawsuit as a waste of time and money.

“I would say Strange’s litigation is very problematic,” Stewart said. “We know that in the Republican Party, anti-gambling is high on their list and I’m sure the religious right would say, ‘I’m glad he’s doing that,’ but it could be argued that resources could be better used elsewhere.”

Stewart said the litigation will likely drag on for quite some time, but in the end, he said the odds are in favor of PCI.

“I don’t anticipate it being settled any time soon,” he said. “In my opinion, odds are against the attorney general being able to affect the way Native Americans are able to conduct their operations now. Based on what I’ve read and studied, the odds are not too favorable.”

Strange filed his lawsuit the same day that state police raided VictoryLand Casino in Shorter — a move that raised eyebrows because reportedly when no judge in Macon County would approve the search warrant, the state Supreme Court intervened to order one, a rare move.

Strange filed his lawsuit against Poarch in Elmore County, where Poarch has a gaming facility but is not headquartered. State law allows such a suit to be filed wherever Poarch does business, but PCI would reserve the right to petition to move the Escambia County part of the case back to circuit court in Escambia County.

As for whether or not the attorney general’s campaign against Indian casinos is nothing more than a political move aimed at garnering support for a future run at the governor’s office, Stewart said, “I would not rule that out.”

If that’s the case, Strange might have a hard time finding votes in Escambia County, at least with some voicing their opinions on social media Tuesday following the lawsuit announcement.

Cystal Kelley, a Wind Creek employee, said the casino is vital to the economic well being of many local families.

“They shut down the casinos and unemployment will sky rocket,” she wrote on Facebook. “I have worked there for two years. So has my husband.”

Some people pointed to the jobs that Poarch has provided in the area — as well as the donations of money to Atmore Community Hospital, local schools and other organizations.

“It’s called gambling which means you take your chances,” posted Leslie Holland George. “If you are depending on winning at a casino to pay your light bill then you probably shouldn’t be there anyways. That casino employs a lot of people from this area and if it wasn’t for them Atmore would eventually be nothing.”

Other residents are calling for Strange to refocus his efforts on other areas.

“Spend our tax dollars to protect the snapper that they are ‘blowing up’ in our sick gulf,” wrote Laura Phillips Fancher. “Figure out how to increase jobs in our state. Quit wasting tax dollars because you’re jealous of the Indians casino. The Bible belt won’t let them have gambling so they attack the Indians. Who, by the way, have given millions to schools and communities in our state! Can you match that Mr. Strange?”

Katie Nichols said she believes the state’s violent crime and drug problems should take precedence over gambling on Indian land.

“They went after the casino in Shorter, Ala. and a few others and failed miserably,” Nichols said. “Now they are looking to save face and go after federally protected interests. Millions of taxpayer dollars wasted for them to fail … again. How about instead of going after something that is not hurting anyone you go after all the real criminals? Meth lab owners, rapists, killers. You know, the ones you are supposed to be prosecuting?”

Others, though, supported Strange’s lawsuit.

“Is the money really worth it?” posted Kristie Hammac McGhee. “Only the rich are getting richer. … It’s not even helping their own other than a divide among themselves.”