Oklahoma Gov. Stitt to Reignite Tribal Casino Payments Squabble

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Oklahoma Gov. Stitt to Reignite Tribal Casino Payments Squabble

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt plans to rekindle a legal quarrel over tribal casino compacts that was presumed dead mid-2020. That’s according to court documents seen by KOSU, a public radio station operated by Oklahoma State University.

Kevin Stitt
Kevin Stitt
Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, believes a recent SCOTUS ruling could give him the upper hand with the tribes over compacts, but the legal reasoning is unclear. (Image: NBC)

Stitt has retained lawyers in Washington DC who have told US District Court Judge Timothy Kelly they consider controversial compacts negotiated between the governor and four Oklahoma tribes to be valid. They plan to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the agreements, brought by the state’s largest tribal operators.

Stitt signed the compacts in 2020 with the breakaway Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Comanche Nation, United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokees, and Kialegee Tribal Town amid a wider squabble over the casino revenue-share payments.

These were controversial because they promised the four tribes the right to offer sports betting as part of the new deal, despite the practice being illegal in Oklahoma.

They also undermined the united front taken by Oklahoma’s several dozen other tribal operators over the status of the model gaming compact, signed in 2004.

Stitt argued this compact was due to expire on January 1, 2020, and that any operator offering class III gaming, like slots, blackjack, and craps, after that would be doing so illegally.

Lawsuits Fly

The governor wanted to squeeze more money out of the tribes in revenue-share payments by forcing them to renegotiate their gaming agreements. But the tribes argued that the language of model compact suggested the agreements were due to roll over and renew on the date in question and that negotiations were unnecessary.

The tribes filed a federal lawsuit against Stitt. On July 28, 2020, US District Court Judge Timothy De Guisti agreed with the tribes that the compacts rolled over.

The tribes then filed another federal lawsuit against the four breakaway compacts, which is the one Stitt’s lawyers will now seek to dismiss.

Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders sued the governor in the Oklahoma Supreme Court, arguing he lacked the authority to sign the four compacts without the legislature’s consent.

The Supreme Court agreed, ruling he had overreached by offering sports betting, which could only be authorized by the legislature and then by a public referendum.

Emboldened by SCOTUS?

It seemed like the end of the road for Stitt’s compact strategy, so what changed?

It appears the governor has become emboldened by a recent US Supreme Court ruling, which held that Oklahoma has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in Indian country, which comprises vast swathes of the state.

In the wake of that groundbreaking decision, the Governor has conducted a review of pending litigation involving Oklahoma Tribes and the State,” Stitt’s lawyers wrote. “As a result of that review, Governor Stitt … now intends to assert the defense that [the complaint] fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

“…The Governor expects to make additional arguments concerning the validity of the compacts at issue that the parties have not yet fully presented. In particular, the Governor will explain why … the underlying compacts are valid as a matter of law,” they added.

Quite what the SCOTUS ruling has to do with casino compacts is unclear, and tribal lawyers who spoke to KOSU this week appeared baffled by the legal reasoning. One, Stephen Greetham, Outside Counsel for Chickasaw Nation, said Stitt was trying to use the ruling “like a magic wand.”

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