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Wyandotte Nation wins big decision on gaming in Kansas

The Wyandotte Nation's former casino on trust land in downtown Kansas City. File Photo � The Lawrence Journal-World.
The Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma can cross state lines and operate a casino in downtown Kansas City, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

In a 44-page decision, Judge Julie A. Robinson handed the tribe yet another victory in its long-running battle with the state of Kansas and the federal government. After suffering numerous setbacks, the tribe has won two major court cases in just the last few months.

The third win comes in a case against the National Indian Gaming Commission. The agency told the tribe that it couldn't operate the casino in Kansas because the site didn't qualify under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

But Robinson said the NIGC's decision misinterpreted a key provision in the law. She said the agency went too far by determining that tribe didn't meet the land claim exception of IGRA even though the Kansas City property was purchased with land claim settlement funds.

Since the passage of the law in 1988, only one tribe -- the Seneca Nation of New York -- has satisfied the land claim exception. Robinson said NIGC's decision for the Wyandottes conflicts with the "plain meaning" of IGRA and with the Seneca Nation decision.

"The NIGC has required the Wyandotte to meet criteria that it has not required in other cases, and the Secretary of the Interior has allowed lands to qualify for the settlement of lands exception in circumstances at least as suitable as the case at bar," wrote Robinson, citing the Seneca Nation decision.

Robinson's ruling means the tribe can reopen the small Class II facility in Kansas City. The casino had been open only a few months before the state of Kansas raided it and seized more than $1.25 million in tribal cash and equipment.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, has since ruled that the raid violated the tribe's sovereignty because the state lacked jurisdiction over the land. "There was no legal basis for the state's action and very little likelihood that the state will ever have a legal justification," the court said in April.

A few weeks later, Judge Robinson affirmed that the tribe bought the land, known as the Shriner Tract, with funds that were authorized by Congress. She upheld the Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision to take the half-acre property into trust but waited until now to rule on the legality of gaming at the site.

Under IGRA, tribes cannot engage in gaming on land taken into trust after 1988 unless certain exceptions are met. The exceptions cover tribes in Oklahoma with former reservations, newly recognized tribes, restored tribes and tribes with land claim settlements.

If a tribe can't meet any exception, it can seek what is known as a two-part determination that requires the approval of the federal government and the concurrence of the governor in the state where gaming will take place. In the history of IGRA, only three tribes have successfully navigated the process.

Despite the rare use of the two-part determination and the land claim settlement exception, Congress is seeking to eliminate these provisions from IGRA. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) says unscrupulous developers are using tribes to exploit the process.

McCain's bill, S.2078, has been cleared for the Senate floor. But it would still allow Oklahoma tribes, newly recognized tribes and restored tribes to open casinos. These exceptions have been utilized many more times than the two-part determination or land claim exception.

Latest Court Decision:
Wyandotte Nation v. NIGC (July 6, 2006)

Judge Robinson Decision:
Kansas v. Norton (May 9, 2006)

10th Circuit Court Decision:
Wyandotte Nation v. Kansas (April 7, 2006)

Relevant Documents:
NIGC: Legality of Gaming under the IGRA on the Shriner Tract owned by the Wyandotte Tribe (March 24, 2003) | BIA: Reconsideration on Wyandotte lands (June 12, 2003)

Pombo IGRA Bill:
To amend section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to restrict off-reservation gaming (H.R.4893)

McCain IGRA Bill:
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments of 2005 (S.2078)

Relevant Links:
Wyandotte Nation -