Plans by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build the $1 billion First Light Resort And Casino in the southeastern Massachusetts city of Taunton could be in jeopardy after a federal judge ruled against the federal government’s 2015 land-into-trust decision.
According to a report from The Boston Globe newspaper, Judge William Young from the United States District Court For The District Of Massachusetts found against the Department Of The Interior on Thursday in a suit brought by a group of local property owners opposed to last year’s judgment and the construction of a new casino.
In his ruling, Young declared that the Department Of The Interior had lacked the authority to approve the land-into-trust application from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as the tribe had not been federally recognized at the time the landmark 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was passed. He cited the 2009 decision from the United States Supreme Court in the case of Carcieri v Salazar and claimed that tribes could only be eligible for a reservation if they had held an official relationship with the federal government at the time this legislation was ratified.
“In light of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “now under federal jurisdiction” to mean under federal jurisdiction in June [of] 1934, the Secretary [for the Department Of The Interior] lacked the authority to acquire land in trust for the Mashpees [Wampanoag Tribe] as they were not then under federal jurisdiction,” read Young’s ruling.
The newspaper reported that the Mashpees Wampanoag Tribe won federal recognition in 2007 following a 32-year legal struggle with the federal government now likely to appeal the ruling.
“Our people have been challenged throughout history and we are still here, living on the land of our ancestors,” read a statement from Cedric Cromwell, Chairman for the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council. “I have no doubt we will prevail.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe began construction on its First Light Resort And Casino several months ago and declined to say whether this work would now stop although it did reveal that it would be liaising with the Department Of The Interior before deciding how to proceed.
Cromwell stated that he was disappointed with the ruling as the tribe is “descended from the indigenous people who have lived on this land for the past 12,000 years”.
In unsuccessfully fighting the case, government lawyers had argued that the 1934 law was ambiguous and that deference should be given to the Department Of The Interior’s decision.
“With respect, this is not a close call: to find ambiguity here would be to find it everywhere,” read Young’s decision. “The Secretary [for the Department Of The Interior] lacked the authority to acquire land in trust for them, at least under the rationale the secretary offered in the record of decision.”
The plaintiffs celebrated the ruling and explained that they had fought the federal government’s decision because they were opposed to the loss of local and state jurisdiction and would be prepared to take their objection all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
“Judge Young’s decision affirms what we learned and what we’ve been saying over the last four-and-a-half years,” Michelle Littlefield, who filed suit alongside her husband, David, and other residents, told the newspaper. “It isn’t about a casino, it’s about land in a trust and it’s now under state and local control. Our goal has always been that there be local and state oversight.”
April saw the Massachusetts Gaming Commission reject plans for a $677 million casino 20 miles away from Taunton in the city of Brockton. This meant that the First Light Resort And Casino, which did not require state approval, would not have faced regional competition from another casino. In light of Young’s decision, Elaine Driscoll, spokesperson for the regulator, told The Boston Globe that the authority would be reviewing this decision.
“Today’s outcome reflects the uncertainties that have long been part of the [Massachusetts Gaming] Commission’s deliberations in southeastern Massachusetts,” said Driscoll. “At a time deemed appropriate, the [Massachusetts Gaming] Commission will engage in a public discussion to further our review of what course of action will be in the short and long-term best interests of southeastern [Massachusetts] and the Commonwealth.”