SC judge delays decision on Catawba gambling hall

By Jeffery Collins
Columbia, South Carolina (AP) April 2012

A judge wants to take some more time before deciding whether South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe can open a gambling hall on its reservation in York County.

Circuit Judge Ernest Kinard said at a hearing that he just recently found out he was supposed to decide if the Catawba Indian Nation can immediately begin offering gambling. He said he’ll need to review the hundreds of pages of legal documents already filed in the case.

The Catawbas sued South Carolina and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel in January, saying their settlement with the state and U.S. governments two decades ago allows the reservation to have gambling. They also said a decision by the state Supreme Court determined the tribe can have the same types of games that are permitted in other areas of South Carolina.

The tribe said the state passed a law in 2005 allowing gambling cruises to leave from the state’s ports, so South Carolina should allow the Catawbas to offer the same games at a new gambling hall near Rock Hill. They want the judge to issue a temporary restraining order keeping SLED and other law enforcement from arresting them if they start offering gambling while the lawsuit is in court.

But the state said that that same law specifies that gambling can’t begin on the boats until they reach international waters and specifically prohibits any casino-like gambling in areas controlled by South Carolina. The state wants the lawsuit immediately thrown out.

Kinard asked both sides to give him proposed orders in their favor. He told the lawyers he hadn’t made a decision, but did indicate which way he might be leaning.

“I do have a problem – this is off the top here – about being out in the ocean versus on the reservation,” Kinard said.

The Catawbas said their gambling hall would be a critical component to their reservation in Rock Hill. An economic study posted with their lawsuit said the casino and two hotels that would be built near it would employ 3,000 people directly and another 1,000 people indirectly. The facility would bring in $259 million in revenue yearly and pay nearly $110 million to the state through gaming fees and taxes.

In the lawsuit, Chief William Harris pointed out that the per capita income for the tribe’s 2,600 members is $11,000 a year and that unemployment on the Catawba reservation is double the state average.

Gambling has been an issue with the tribe since it the 1993 settlement ending a more than decade-long legal fight with the state and federal governments. The fight began with the Catawbas saying the government illegally took 144,000 acres of their land in 1840.

The tribe ran a bingo parlor in Rock Hill, but it began to struggle once the state started its lottery. The tribe sued the state in 2005, arguing it should be allowed to have video poker to make up for the lost bingo revenue, but the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the 1993 settlement gave the tribe the right to have only the same machines allowed elsewhere in the state.

Lawyers for the state attorney general’s office said the Catawbas have no argument because gambling is not allowed on state soil.

“They want to be allowed to have something that no other person in the state is allowed,” Assistant Attorney General Sonny Jones said.

But attorney Billy Wilkins said previous rulings allow the courts to consider claims by the Catawbas and other Native Americans more liberally than other citizens. He said the settlement already treats tribe members differently than other people in the state in areas like hunting laws and taxes.

“John Q. Citizen never relinquished his right to 15 square miles of real estate,” Wilkins said.