A casino may be coming to Martha’s Vineyard after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously overturned a 2015 lower court decision that blocked the Wampanoag’s plans to build a gaming hall on tribal lands in Martha’s Vineyard, just south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
The tribe’s casino plans, which envisioned converting a vacant community center into a gaming hall featuring 300 electronic gambling machines, were opposed by non-tribal residents of Martha’s Vineyard, along with Massachusetts state legislators, who filed suit to block the tribe’s casino ambitions.
In 1987, the federal government placed 485 acres of the Wampanoag’s tribal land into trust, with the understanding that state and local laws would still apply. The following year, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which allows tribes the right to conduct Class II gaming (aka electronic bingo).
The 2015 district court ruling said the 1987 agreement held sway over IGRA because the tribe failed to exercise sufficient “governmental power” over its tribal land.
Tuesday’s ruling rejects this argument, pointing out that the tribe had demonstrated numerous examples of exercising governmental power, including striking deals with the Environmental Protection Agency, establishing a housing program with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administering an education program funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The state sued to block the tribe’s plans in 2013, shortly after the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) gave the tribe the casino go-ahead and two years after the state announced its own plans to award licenses for three casinos and a slots hall.
Only the slots hall (Penn National Gaming’s Plainridge Park Casino) is currently operational, while MGM Resorts’ $950m MGM Springfield will open next year and Wynn Resorts’ $2.4b Wynn Boston Harbor will follow in 2019.
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe broke ground last year on its First Light Resort & Casino project in the Taunton area but the project’s legality has been challenged by a Rush Street Gaming subsidiary. Courts are currently weighing whether the tribe has the right to build on land that the federal government placed into trust on the tribe’s behalf in 2016.