Federal judge dismisses Strange’s lawsuit against PCI

Published 11:05 am Friday, April 11, 2014


A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit that Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange previously filed against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) Gaming Authority.

Strange’s lawsuit, initially filed Feb. 19, 2013, in an Alabama state court, claimed that PCI’s gaming operations are illegal under state law. PCI successfully had the case moved to federal court, and Judge W. Keith Watkins granted PCI’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit Thursday.

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“At the heart of the motion to dismiss is the issue whether the State of Alabama has authority to bring this action for injunctive and declaratory relief to halt allegedly illegal gaming at the Poarch Band’s Alabama casinos,” Watkins wrote in his 60-page decision, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division, in Montgomery. “Accordingly, after careful consideration of the arguments of counsel, the pertinent law, and the pleadings, as supplemented by the undisputed evidence, the court finds that Defendants’ motion to dismiss is due to be granted.”

Watkins noted that the National Indian Gaming Commission has confirmed that PCI operates Class II electronic bingo machines, which can be offered without state approval.

In the lawsuit, Strange and the state attempted to use two federal court decisions to invalidate PCI’s tribal status, but Watkins rejected both of those attempts.

First, Strange’s lawsuit pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Carcieri v. Salazar, which ruled that the federal government could only take land into trust for tribes that were “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934. Since PCI did not gain federal tribal recognition until 1984, the lawsuit argued that the tribe’s lands were not legally placed in trust.

Watkins said that Carcieri did not apply in the PCI case, noting, “for purposes of this lawsuit, the fact remains, as established by the 1984, 1992 and 1995 deeds, that the United States holds title to the lands in question in trust for the benefit of the Poarch Band.”

“The state has not demonstrated that the Supreme Court’s decision in Carcieri opens the door for it to now challenge … the validity of the Secretary (of the Interior)’s decisions in 1984, 1992 and 1995 to take the lands in Elmore, Escambia and Montgomery counties into trust for the benefit of the Poarch Band,” Watkins wrote. “The claim … premised on allegedly illegal gaming taking place off Indian lands is due to be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

Watkins also rejected the state’s attempt to argue that PCI’s lands were invalid under the precedent set by the recent 9th Circuit of Appeals decision in Big Lagoon Rancheria v. California. In that January decision, the court ruled 2 to 1 that property at the heart of the case did not constitute “Indian land” because the California tribe in the case had not been federally recognized by 1934.

Watkins said the Big Lagoon decision did not apply to Alabama’s case against PCI.

“This court respectfully declines to follow the majority’s reasoning in Big Lagoon, a non-binding case, as it finds more persuasive Big Lagoon’s dissent,” Watkins wrote. “The dissent persuasively reasons that Carcieri cannot be read as permitting an untimely collateral attack on the Secretary’s designation of trust lands.”

The state could seek to appeal Watkins’ decision, and send the case to a federal court of appeals.

For more on this developing story, check this website for updates and also see the Wednesday, April 16, edition of The Atmore Advance.