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Cayuga Nation wins Second Circuit casino dispute

The federal government, not local laws, govern reservation gambling activities, the judges concluded.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Cayuga Nation can continue operating its Lakeside Entertainment casino in a Finger Lakes village after the Second Circuit put a decades-long land dispute to rest Tuesday. 

Finding that gambling on reservation lands is governed by the National Indian Gaming Commission, a panel of three appellate judges affirmed that the casino qualifies as a Class II facility under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

“This case turns on a straightforward question of statutory interpretation,” U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch wrote for the court. “As we and our sister circuits have held, IGR preempts all state and local legislation and regulation relating to gambling conducted on ‘Indian lands,’ as defined in that statute.

“The dispositive question, thus, is whether the Parcel sits on Indian lands within the meaning of IGRA. We readily conclude that it does,” the 47-page opinion continues. 

During May oral arguments, Union Springs attorney David H. Tennant argued that, while the Cayuga Nation’s ancient reservations have “not officially been disestablished,” the land is now in a place “over which the tribes exercise no inherent sovereignty, in whole or in part.” 

Tennant argued that the term “reservation” would imply tribal jurisdiction was being exercised — something the Cayugas could not lawfully do within their reservation because of a 2005 Supreme Court decision that said the Oneida Nation could not unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty over land it had lost, and later repurchased. 

The Second Circuit tossed out that argument, as did the Northern District of New York before it, saying the definition of “Indian lands” contains no such requirement. 

Further, had Congress intended to exclude specific reservations from the scope of federal legislation, it would have done so, Lynch wrote. 

The Obama appointee also addressed the longstanding history of treaties between Native Americans and European settlers — older than the United States Constitution. 

Today, the federal government recognizes the Cayuga Nation as the same entity with which it signed the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, Lynch wrote. Despite the promised protection of the nation’s land, however, New York bought the entirety of the Cayuga Reservation in 1795 and 1807. 

“The United States neither ratified nor interfered with these transactions,” Lynch wrote. “As is important for present purposes, however, the village concedes that no Act of Congress has disestablished the Cayuga Reservation in the intervening centuries.”

In the early 2000s, the Cayugas would begin buying back their original land on the open market, giving way to the opening of Lakeside Entertainment. As the Nation began to build its casino, the village of Union Springs issued a series of stop-work orders, citing the lack of required permits. 

That dispute would kick off decades of litigation now settled at the Second Circuit that would eventually implicate the village’s 1958 anti-gambling ordinance restricting games of chance. 

U.S. Circuit Judges Denny Chin and Amalya L. Kearse rounded out the rest of the panel. 

Today, the Cayuga Historic Reservation land is home to dozens of residential units for citizens. Cayuga Nation provides students with scholarships, helps with health care arrangements, and has its own police force and court system. 

Clint Halftown, the Cayuga Nation’s leader and federal representative, praised Tuesday's ruling, calling it a "great victory" confirming its right to do business "free of local interference and discrimination." 

"Sovereignty is the bedrock of the relationship between federally-recognized Native American nations like ours and the state and local governments with whom we must interact," Halftown said in a statement. 

"This is yet another affirmation of our sovereignty and the Nation will continue to enforce its inherent rights against all attempts at interference."

Tennant did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Follow Nina Pullano on Twitter.

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