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Court Likely to Block Village Rules Aimed at Cayuga Nation Casino

The case is at the Second Circuit after a federal judge ruled last year that federal tribal land laws, not local ordinances, govern gaming at a Cayuga Nation casino.

MANHATTAN (CN) — In what appeared to be a losing battle, a village in the Finger Lakes region of New York mounted their case Tuesday to restrict gambling at a reservation casino run by Cayuga Nation members. 

The village of Union Springs argued that it should be able to enforce a 1958 ordinance restricting games of chance — although the village does allow the occasional charity bingo game, like in the case of fire department fundraisers. 

Union Springs wants a reversal after U.S. District Judge David Hurd in Utica found its local gambling laws preempted by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federal statute passed in 1988 to regulate the conduct of gaming on “Indian lands.” 

It was the village’s position at oral arguments Tuesday in Manhattan that the casino in question, Lakeside Entertainment, should not be considered part of the Cayuga Nation’s reservation. 

“These ancient reservations that have not officially been disestablished,” said attorney David H. Tennant. 

But the land, he argued, is now a place “over which the tribes exercise no inherent sovereignty, in whole or in part.” 

Tennant cited a 2005 Supreme Court decision precluding the Oneida Nation from unilaterally reviving its ancient sovereignty over land that had been sold in 1807 and then repurchased in the 1990s by the Oneidas’ descendant tribe. The court found that the nation had "relinquished governmental reins and could not regain them through open-market purchases from current titleholders."

At issue in the Cayugas’ gaming regulation lawsuit, however, was not what rights the tribe possesses to the land, U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch said, but the rights of the federal government.

“Congress has errogated to itself the regulation of this kind of gaming,” the Obama-appointed Lynch said. 

Unlike the Oneida Nation tax dispute, everyone here would agree that “the land is on an Indian reservation that has never been disestablished,” Lynch continued. 

Plus, he said, the Oneida matter dealt with sweeping exemptions from regulation and jurisdiction. 

“What’s claimed here is much more modest,” Lynch said. “That’s the problem that I have with your argument.” 

Addressing attorney David DeBruin, who represents the Cayuga Nation, Judge Lynch then asked if the tribe had a permit to operate its casino. 

DeBruin explained that the National Indian Gaming Commission oversees operations and issues licenses for those running games at Lakeside Entertainment, who have to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks. 

A portion of profits at the casino are also shared with the gaming commission. 

“The NIGC receives those payments, cashes those checks,” said DeBruin, of the firm Jenner & Block. 

In his brief, DeBruin argued that the village cannot rewrite IGRA’s text to define reservations more narrowly.

"So when IGRA defines 'Indian lands' to mean 'all' lands within 'any' reservation, courts cannot rewrite that definition to exclude lands within some reservations," he wrote.

The three-judge panel also included U.S. Circuit Judges Denny Chin and Amalya L. Kearse. The panel reserved judgment. 

Tuesday’s arguments were the latest development in nearly two decades of litigation between the Cayuga Nation and village of Union Springs. 

Judge Hurd's ruling last year meanwhile traced the long-running history of land disputes between tribal communities and the U.S. government through the centuries-old land treaties signed — and later violated — by European colonizers, dating back to the late 1700s. 

“[A] comprehensive account of North American tribal relations with European colonists encroaching on aboriginal lands would be significantly more convoluted than the brief, incomplete narrative presented in this opinion,” Hurd wrote in the 50-page opinion. 

Now, 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. 

“In short, the Nation has come a long way since 2002, when it first began to pursue economic development efforts,” Hurd had said in March of 2020, enjoining the village of Union Springs from enforcing its anti-gaming ordinance. 

Representatives for the Cayuga Nation praised the decision at the time. 

“This is a great victory for our nation, who were made promises more than 200 years ago and have justifiably relied on those promises,” Clint Halftown, the nation’s federal representative, said in a statement. “This is yet another affirmance of our sovereignty.” 

Lakeside Entertainment briefly closed down in March 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It reopened in May of that year, with protocols including temperature checks, required masks and six-foot social distancing. 

Cayuga Nation attorney DeBruin declined to comment following Tuesday's arguments. An attorney for Union Springs did not respond to a request for comment.

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