Texas Sues to Halt Gambling on Pueblo Reservation

EL PASO, Texas (CN) —Texas claims in a federal lawsuit that the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe is violating state gambling laws against illegal lotteries through its electronic bingo slot machines and unlicensed, 24/7 bingo operation.

Texas sued the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, its tribal council and its Tribal Governor Carlos Hisa, or his successor, in El Paso federal court on Wednesday.

The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo reservation is located near the cities of El Paso and Socorro, Texas, and is just north of Mexico along the Rio Grande. The Pueblo is the oldest community in Texas and was founded by the Tigua Indians in 1682 as the Ysleta Mission.

According to the complaint, Congress restored federal tribal status to the Pueblo in 1987 through the Restoration Act, re-establishing the trust relationship between the United States and the tribe that had been terminated in 1968.

In exchange for the benefits of federal assistance and services, the Pueblo agreed not to have gambling on its land, Texas claims. As such, the text of the Restoration Act contains a tribal resolution prohibiting “gambling or bingo in any form on its reservation.”

The Restoration Act also stated that Texas gambling law would operate as federal law on the Pueblo reservation. The relevant text says, “All gaming activities which are prohibited by the laws of the State of Texas are hereby prohibited on the reservation and on lands of the tribe.”

Similarly, a Fifth Circuit ruling held that Texas law “functions as surrogate federal law” on the tribe’s reservation.

Texas says in its lawsuit that the Pueblo has been flouting the ban on gambling by “offering various types of illegal gambling on its reservation for much of the past two decades.” It says the tribe was found to be operating illegal slot machines and card and dice games in 2002, which led to an injunction against those activities.

This resulted in further litigation, in which the Pueblo argued that it is permitted to engage in bingo activities because it is governed by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, not the Restoration Act.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone struck down the state’s motion for contempt against the Pueblo for violation of the 2002 injunction in March of this year.

On May 17, Texas says it conducted an inspection of the Pueblo’s Speaking Rock Casino after learning through a 2016 El Paso Times article that the tribe was “transitioning to bingo” gambling activities.

According to the complaint, the state’s inspection uncovered: a variant on traditional, paper-based bingo; 90-card bingo card minders (portable electronic devices that tracked multiple electronic cards); pull tabs (a paper-based, lottery ticket-like game); and thousands of slot machines operating “electronic bingo.”

“The tribe offered this illegal lottery in a dim, casino-like atmosphere with a bar and bar tables extending down at least one row of slot machines, to the sound of electronic bells, whistles, and other auditory effects emitted from thousands of colorful, flashing slot machines,” the lawsuit states. “The machines announced their maximum respective jackpots in blinking, marquis-style lights, some ranging as high as 40-plus thousands of dollars.”

Texas says the Pueblo’s slot machines operating electronic bingo constitutes an illegal lottery because it involves the payment of cash consideration into a game of chance that pays cash prizes. This violates the state’s penal code for gambling as well as the Restoration Act, the complaint alleges.

Likewise, the Pueblo’s card minder and paper-based bingo violate Texas’s Bingo Enabling Act, the state claims, because the tribe does not have a license from the lottery commission, the activities are being conducted 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the card minders exceeded the allowed number of cards, and the pull-tab bingo was not approved.

Texas seeks a declaratory judgment that the Pueblo’s gambling activities violate the Restoration Act. It also wants an injunction to enforce the prohibitions on illegal lotteries. Anna Marie Mackin of the Texas Attorney General’s Office is representing the state.

Randolph Barnhouse, attorney for the Pueblo, told Courthouse News he disagrees with Texas’s interpretation of the Restoration Act and says the state has no regulatory authority over the tribe’s gambling activities.

Barnhouse says the Pueblo is in full compliance with the applicable laws and that Texas has been going after it for awhile. He also says Judge Cardone left open the issue of bingo in the previous litigation.

The Native American Rights Fund, which provides legal assistance to Indian tribes, says that contrary to popular myth, gaming has not had a major impact on most tribes. It claims that gaming has not significantly lowered the high levels of poverty for Indians. The group’s website cites a per-capita income of $11,259 for Indians, compared to the national average of $21,587.

Only 224 of the 560 Indian nations are involved in gaming, the fund says. It says the small tribes located near major urban areas have the most successful gaming operations. Many tribes do not participate in gaming because they are located in rural, unpopulated areas.

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