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Tigua gambling efforts suffer another major loss with appellate court


El Paso’s Tigua Indians have suffered another major defeat in their decades-long efforts to conduct gambling at their Speaking Rock Entertainment Center.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled April 2 that the tribe’s gambling operations were illegal, upholding a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez of El Paso.

The ruling brings the Tiguas closer to a court-ordered shuttering of Speaking Rock.

“For a generation, the State of Texas and a federally recognized Indian tribe, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, have litigated the Pueblo’s attempts to conduct various gaming activities on its reservation near El Paso,” Circuit Judge Don R. Willett wrote in a ruling for a unanimous panel. “This latest case poses familiar questions that yield familiar answers: (1) which federal law governs the legality of the Pueblo’s gaming operations—the Restoration Act (which bars gaming that violates Texas law) or the more permissive Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (which “establish[es] . . . Federal standards for gaming on Indian lands”); and (2) whether the district court correctly enjoined the Pueblo’s gaming operations. Our on-point precedent conclusively resolves this case. The Restoration Act controls, the Pueblo’s gaming is prohibited, and we affirm.”

Brant Martin, a lawyer for the Tiguas, said the tribe “is extremely disappointed by the ruling by the Fifth Circuit panel, as it fails to address important questions of law that were raised on appeal that were not decided by Ysleta I and whose interpretation would not be violative of the Rule of Orderliness.”

Martin said oral arguments in the case focused on regulatory powers in the Restoration Act, which he said Martinez and other judges have found confusing and sought appellate court clarification. He said the ruling didn’t address those concerns.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Tiguas and the state of Texas have been locked in court battles since 1993 over the legality of gambling on tribal lands, with the state winning at almost every turn. The tribe has shut down Speaking Rock, only to reopen it with different games.

Court records show the Tiguas plan to ask for a rehearing of the decision by all 26 judges of the 5th Circuit. Such requests are rarely granted. That would leave the tribe with only an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has consistently refused to intervene in gambling disputes between Texas and its Indian tribes.

The high court in January refused to hear an appeal of a 5th Circuit ruling against the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of East Texas in a case almost identical to the Tiguas. The judge in that case has given the state and tribe until March 2021 to submit arguments over how to proceed in response to findings that Alabama-Coushatta gambling operations are illegal.

The U.S. House of Representatives last year passed a bill that would make the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta subject to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the 1987 law that controls most tribal gaming across the country. The Senate hasn’t taken further action on the bill and  Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. John Cornyn and other Texas Republican leaders have said they oppose it.

Speaking Rock has been closed since March 19 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tribe has not announced a reopening date.

Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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