Ruling Could Impact Texas Tribal Casino

by Hector San Miguel

An appeals court ruling handed down Jan. 17 spells trouble for a 24-hour casino being operated by Alabama-Coushatta Tribe in Livingston, Texas.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans, La., upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the closure of the Speaking Rock Casino in El Paso, Texas. The Tigua Indians have been operating the casino since 1993. It brings in more than $60 million a year for the tribe. It provides 800 jobs.

Texas Attorney General Attorney General John Cornyn filed a lawsuit in September 1999 against the tribe. He contended the casino was illegal under Texas law. A federal judge granted the state a summary judgment motion last September and ordered the casino to close by Nov. 30.

Attorneys for the tribe were able to get a stay to keep the casino open until they could appeal to the 5th Circuit Court Jan. 9. The high court released a one-page ruling stating it upheld the previous court decision. The Tiguas can ask for a rehearing by the 5th Circuit Court or seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme
Court. The tribe hasn't made a decision yet.

The 5th Circuit Court is expected to issue an order by Feb. 7 enforcing the previous court ruling to shut down the casino. It will be sent to the federal judge who made the initial ruling.

The appeals court decision has a direct impact on the Alabama-Coushatta Entertainment Center near Livingston, Texas. The 24-hour casino, which offers slot machines and card games, is located not far from Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, Texas, and Delta Downs in Vinton, La. The casino opened in late November 2001.

Tom Kelley of the Texas Attorney General's Office said it's premature to comment on the fate of the Alabama-Coushatta casino. "We are basically awaiting the official ruling from the 5th Circuit to be sent to the U.S. District Court
in El Paso. We will then evaluate our next action from that," he said.

Alabama-Coushatta tribal officials called the 5th Circuit Court ruling "a terrible decision."

"We're disheartened that the attorney general has chosen to pick on a group of tribes in Texas," tribal council chairman Kevin Battise told the El-Paso Times. "The tribes are trying to pick themselves up from their bootstraps and make something in pursuit of the American dream."

Lake Charles, La.-based casino companies -- Isle of Capri and Harrah's -- have been keeping a close eye on the Alabama-Coushatta casino, which is located only 90 miles north of Houston. The Indian casino impacts the Lake Charles riverboat casinos because they draw largely on the Houston market.

Local casino officials have said the Indian operation is doing brisk business. It offers nearly 300 slot machines, poker, and blackjack.

"We believe that the attorney general is following Texas law and he will prevail in the courts," said Roger Deaton, Isle of Carpi regional vice president of operations. "Texas will close those casinos down that are operating illegally."

In documents filed in federal court in Lufkin, Texas, John Cornyn, the attorney general, said the Alabama-Coushatta casino violates state and federal law.

Cornyn asked that the Alabama-Coushatta Entertainment Center be closed until the appeal with the Tiguas' case is decided since the same issues are at hand.

"When that ruling comes, that decision will become the 'law of the circuit' and will be binding as precedent upon the courts of the 5th Circuit," Cornyn wrote. "With these facts in mind, it makes little sense to launch into what will be, in essence, a rehash of issues that are currently being addressed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals."