The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) learned April 11 that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed a lower court ruling, affirming the tribe’s right to open a Class II casino on its Martha’s Vineyard island land. The case, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, Inc. and Town of Aquinnah, Mass. v. the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head, Inc., was filed by then-Governor Deval Patrick, alleging that the tribe had forfeited its gaming rights as part of a 1983 land settlement, later ratified by Congress in 1987, that required the tribe’s compliance with state and local laws, including prohibitions on gaming.
The Wampanoags had announced plans to develop a casino in an unfinished 6,200-square foot building initially slated to become a community center in 2012, and received approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission in October 2013. The state moved to file the initial lawsuit in state court shortly afterward, and the tribe successfully argued to move the case to federal court.
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The first ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV in 2015, stated that “the tribe has not met its burden of demonstrating that it exercises sufficient governmental power over the Settlement Lands, and therefore the [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] does not apply. Furthermore, and in any event, it is clear that IGRA did not repeal by implication the Massachusetts Settlement Act [the Congressional legislation that ratified the land settlement].”
However, in the unanimous ruling by the 1st Circuit Court, “The district court reasoned that IGRA [which was passed in 1988] did not apply, because the tribe had failed to exercise sufficient governmental power; and that even if the tribe had exercised sufficient governmental power, the [tribal land in trust agreement] … which provides that the Settlement Lands are subject to state laws and regulations (including gaming laws and regulations), governed,” U.S. Circuit Court Judge Juan Torruella wrote. “Because we find that the tribe has exercised more than sufficient governmental power to satisfy the requirements of IGRA, and the Federal Act has been impliedly repealed by IGRA in relevant part, we reverse.”
“As we have always asserted, the Aquinnah Wampanoag has every right to conduct gaming on our tribal lands just as any other tribe in the country,” Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in a statement released the next day. “This decision affirms our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the land that has always been ours and solidifies our place in the gaming market.”