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Legal Developments

Supreme Court Ruling Won’t Upend Oklahoma Tribal Gaming, Officials Say

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that most of eastern Oklahoma is part of a Native American reservation will have little immediate impact on the daily operations of the state and an even less dramatic impact on tribal gaming, officials say.

Though the court’s ruling could change federal and state jurisdiction on federal crimes, existing regulations and state statutes will prevent any dramatic changes to Oklahoma tribal gaming’s future.

“It’s not something that is going to change anyone’s life,” said Sheila Morago, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, in an interview with Betting USA. “For gaming, it’s business as usual. There is no change.”

The 5-4 court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma determined the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation includes millions of additional acres in eastern Oklahoma. Native American leaders called McGirt a “historic” win for tribal sovereignty, but the immediate, day-to-day impacts on legal administration, property rights and gaming will almost assuredly exude a far lesser impact.

“What it means to us is symbolically powerful to our nation,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, a gaming lawyer and Creek Nation member, during an industry conference Thursday. “But as extraordinarily powerful, in terms of not being erased on our lands, this is, what it means to gaming, the short-term impacts will likely be minimal.”

Case Decision Ramifications

Jimcy McGrit, the plaintiff, sought to overturn his child rape conviction, arguing that the crime was committed on federally-recognized tribal lands, and therefore was not subject to the state of Oklahoma’s jurisdiction. The high court found the U.S. federal government had never rescinded the Creek’s reservation in much of Oklahoma’s eastern half, meaning McGirt’s chargers were indeed subject to federal jurisdiction.

Despite fears this would reallocate authority from Oklahoma to the tribe, the court’s narrow decision only applied to jurisdictional control over major crimes, said Oklahoma State University Assistant Professor John Holden in an interview. The precedent could influence future federal tribal sovereignty decisions but has no immediate or near-term impact on existing gaming statutes.

“I think some people might be jumping the gun that they think this is going to open up an opportunity to create casinos everywhere,” Holden said. “There’s still federal law in place, which still governs this process even if we took a very broad view of what occurred in this case, which I don’t think we should.”

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 granted tribes expanded gaming rights on sovereign lands but required state government approval on any gaming offerings, casino locations, tax rates and a host of other issues. Since a 2004 Oklahoma voter referendum further expanded tribal gaming, roughly 130 such facilities have opened, but the McGrit decision doesn’t mean tribes can now open a new casino on every street corner.

“Some of the apocalyptic views are now ‘only the federal government can regulate half the state of Oklahoma’ and that is not how I read this decision at all,” Holden said.

Oklahoma Tribal Gaming Future

In Oklahoma, tribal gaming stakeholders are more concerned about existing state law than the Supreme Court decision.

The tribes and state are locked in two separate court battles regarding the gaming compact signed in conjunction with the 2004 referendum. There is no timeline for either ruling, which unlike the Supreme Court decision, could upend the state’s gaming market.

Meanwhile, as Oklahoma’s COVID-19 cases spike, tribal leaders are more preoccupied with patron safety at their casinos, which are the largest revenue generator for many of the state’s 33 gaming tribes.  

For now, there is no legal avenue – or even inkling – that the court’s decision will spark a new casino influx.

“We’ve gotten so many phone calls, ‘what does this mean, do I still need to pay my property taxes? Do I need to move? Do I live on a reservation now?’ Morago said. “That is not the case.”

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