Governor Deval Patrick’s administration filed suit in state court Monday to block the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah from opening a small casino on tribal land on the western edge of Martha’s Vineyard, the renowned resort island and presidential vacation spot.
The lawsuit, filed before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, comes three weeks after the tribe threw a curveball into the state’s unsettled gambling industry by announcing it had received all necessary federal approvals to convert an unfinished tribal community center into a temporary gambling hall and would do so “as soon as possible.”
State officials insist the Aquinnah cannot host blackjack on the island.
“We have a genuine difference of legal opinion, and that needs to be sorted out by a court, and this is how you do that,” Patrick told the Globe in an interview Monday in a State House elevator. “I don’t have a position on the substance [of a Vineyard casino]. I have a position on what the law provides.”
The governor’s just-filed suit against the tribe touches a complicated intersection of state and federal law. Tribal gambling is approved and regulated under federal law, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA. Federally recognized tribes, such as the Aquinnah, can generally host gambling without a state license.
But Massachusetts officials have long said the Aquinnah gave up their federal casino rights in a 1983 settlement deal that resolved a lawsuit brought by the tribe. In the settlement, crafted after nine years of litigation, the island town of Aquinnah and its taxpayers’ association conveyed more than 400 acres of land to the tribe, the lawsuit states. “In return, the Aquinnah Tribe agreed that those lands would remain subject to the Commonwealth’s . . . laws and jurisdiction,” according to the suit.
Under state law, the only way to open a casino is to win a license from the state gambling commission. The Aquinnah have not applied for a state license.
Patrick asked the court to declare “that the Aquinnah Tribe has no right to license, open, or operate a gaming establishment on the settlement lands without complying with all laws of the Commonwealth.”
The tribe, however, has long argued it could not have surrendered federal gambling rights in a 1983 settlement if those rights did not exist until 1988, when Congress approved the tribal gambling act.
The tribe asked the federal government to clarify its rights, and in November unveiled a new legal analysis from Eric Shepard, acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal agency that oversees tribal gambling.
“It is my opinion that the specified lands [on the Vineyard] are Indian lands as defined by IGRA and are eligible for gaming,” Shepard wrote to the tribe, according to the five-page letter, dated Oct. 25.
The tribe has also produced an 18-page legal analysis from the US Department of the Interior’s office of the solicitor, dated Aug. 23, which also concluded that the tribe’s land qualifies under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to host gambling. The tribe insisted in November it has all necessary federal approvals to immediately open what US tribal gambling law calls a Class 2 facility, which could offer games such as high-stakes bingo, poker, and certain varieties of slot machines. To run a wider variety of games, the tribe must negotiate with Patrick on an agreement known as a compact. Compacts provide tribes certain benefits in exchange for giving the state a share of gambling revenue. The Aquinnah have formally asked to open negotiations.
An expert on gambling in Massachusetts said the move appeared to be an indirect attempt by the tribe to try to win a license for a casino on tribal lands on the mainland, the theory being that the threat of a casino on the Vineyard would be so awful that the governor would give in to one on the mainland.
A casino in the small town of Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head, which sits at the western edge of the island and is served only by a two-lane road, would not be easily accessible and would strain the local infrastructure. And local opposition could be fierce, with a casino being antithetical to the island’s noncommercial aesthetic.
“All the legal issues aside, just from a pure economic standpoint, it’s a terrible place for a casino,” said the expert, Clyde W. Barrow, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
“What this is really about,” he said, “is trying to get leverage to force the governor to negotiate” for a casino on the mainland.