Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules Casino Lawsuits Can Be Heard in State Courts
Price, Marie, THE JOURNAL RECORD
In a ruling that a Choctaw Nation attorney called a blow to tribal sovereignty, a split Oklahoma Supreme Court has held in two cases that lawsuits against Choctaw casinos can be brought in state courts as well as tribal courts.
"I've been representing Indian tribes for 40 years, and this is probably the single most difficult blow for tribal sovereignty that I have ever seen in my career," said Choctaw counsel Bob Rabon. "These tribes have never been subject to state court jurisdiction."
The court's decisions came in two lawsuit filed by individuals claiming they were injured at the Choctaw Casino at Pocola. The rulings track with justices' recent opinion in the Cossey case, which involved a lawsuit against Cherokee Nation Enterprises.
Rabon represented the Choctaw Nation in the case involving Danny and Pat Dye of Lavaca, Ark. Danny Dye alleged that he was injured in December 2005 when he was hit by a casino shuttle cart.
"This gaming is conducted on Indian country, the tribes' Indian country," Rabon said.
Previously, he said, no court has attempted to exercise jurisdiction over a tribe's activities on its own land.
"That's a pretty big grab of jurisdiction, in one fell swoop," Rabon said.
The longtime tribal attorney declined to say how his clients will proceed.
"We've still got arrows in our quiver," Rabon said. "I'm not going to discuss what our strategy will be, but we're not done. We're not done by a long shot."
However, he said that in addition to appeal or asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the tribe has an option under its gaming compact with the state.
"We can resolve this dispute the way the people of the state of Oklahoma agreed we would do it," Rabon said.
A specific section of the gaming compact is designed to address such issues, he said.
"It says if there's a dispute regarding interpretation or one party believes the other party has breached the compact, that we first try to meet and resolve it," Rabon said. "If that's not successful, then you submit it to arbitration. Then from there, you go into federal district court."
He said that is what the state, tribes and people of Oklahoma agreed to in the ballot question that legalized the current compact- based tribal casino gaming system.
Rabon said neither the tribes nor the state intended for such matters to be handled in state courts.
Danny Dye spoke briefly about the decision in his case.
"I really don't have much to comment on this, other than I'm satisfied with the court ruling," he said. It's been three-and-a- half years and I'll be glad to get this behind me."
Attorney Daniel Walker represented the Dyes.
"It's been a long time coming," he said. "I'm hoping that now we can begin litigating this matter in the state court."
Walker, who lives in Muldrow but has his law office in Fort Smith, Ark. …