As the Supreme Court reconvenes, the State of Texas stands against three Native Texan Tribes (the Ysleta, the Alabama, and the Coushatta). This is in reference to the case of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas. It’s a long-standing debate about the legality of gambling at tribal casinos.
At the heart of this case is the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in El Paso. They offer both live “call” bingo and bingo-style slot machines. The casino employs hundreds of Tiguas Natives (formerly members of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo).
Additionally, it represents a main source of income, education, and housing for the tribe.
Texas potentially winning the case makes the Tiguas and the Alabama-Coushatta tribes the only indigenous tribes in the country without a legal right to offer gambling.
Texas does not offer legal gambling, whether online casinos or sports betting.
History and Timeline
The Seminole Tribe of Florida in the late 1970s began building tribal casinos on their land. Based in Fort Lauderdale, they built for the purpose of, among other gambling ventures, bingo — which was illegal. The Seminole tribe sued Broward County and won the right to control gaming practices on their lands.
They are now allowed to offer entertainment practices, even if those practices are outside of Florida laws.
This venture by the Seminole tribe sparked a wave of Native gaming that went uncontested in federal courts until 1987.
The case of California v. Cabezon Band of Mission Indians broke the pattern. It represented the first case of a state seeking to control the amount and type of gaming offered on tribal lands.
In California v. Cabezon an important semantic dichotomy emerged involving forms of gambling that were “prohibited” outright (for example, craps). Moreover, it identified certain games as criminal, and those that were merely “regulated” (i.e. bingo) and subject to civil law.
The state’s position
The Court summarized California’s position in the case as “combatting lawlessness on reservations,” which it saw as resulting from higher stakes bingo gambling than was permitted.
On the other hand, the Cabezon tribe argued that bingo is regulated, and shouldn’t be prohibited.
Due to the fact that it was not a criminal offense, the court gave the tribe sovereignty to regulate bingo. The court believed tribal autonomy had a more vital purpose than strict adherence to California’s gaming laws.
The Ysleta group, now before the Supreme Court, is leaning on the Cabazon case in making its own. The current appellate court ruling (established in the 1980s) gives Texas the right to regulate bingo and other casino games based on a legal statute from 1987.
In the Restoration Act, the state severed its connection with the Ysleta tribe, resulting in a federal trust formed with the Ysleta. This trust gives more overall autonomy to the tribe. However, the tribe makes a trade-off by agreeing to prohibit any gambling activities which are “prohibited by the laws of the state.”
As a result, Texas prohibits gambling on Tribal lands.
Indian Self Sufficiency in Reservation Gaming
Not long after California v. Cabezon, the US Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This provides a framework — established on the principles of Cabezon — for tribes to address legal disputes with the government. Chief among these principles is the need “to promote tribal economic development, tribal self-sufficiency, and strong tribal government.”
Where there is no clear violation of federal law, and the gambling activity is not in violation of criminal state law, the IGRA grants the tribe the authority to regulate the activity.
One of the arguments made in the Ysleta case is that the casinos contribute significantly to the livelihood of the tribe, do not violate any state or federal laws. The tribe desires the same consideration as tribal casinos in states with legalized Native gambling.
Applying California v. Cabazon to the Ysleta case
While Native self-sufficiency has historically been a compelling factor to the US Supreme Court, in the case of Ysleta v. Texas the state is hoping the “prohibited/regulated” dichotomy is sufficient to win them the case.
The state law indicates that only certain “low stakes” bingo gaming is legal. Therefore, the style offered by the Tiguas at Speaking Rock is “prohibited” because it goes beyond that limit.
Chief Justice John Roberts, when hearing oral arguments, put it bluntly when he stated, “if you told somebody that they have games up to $1,000, it would be perfectly natural for that person to say, well, that’s ‘prohibited’ because there’s a $100 cap.”
Justice Elena Kagan concurred. She notes that the Ysleta position uses an unconventional understanding of “prohibited.” Its position implies only gambling activities that are prohibited outright should be labeled “prohibited” in the eyes of the court.
Bingo or Dingo?
Further complicating the Ysleta’s position is the nature of the bingo gaming activities themselves. Speaking Rock offers the “live call” bingo familiar to most people. However, it also provides bingo machines, which the State argues closely resemble slot machines.
These machines operate on “historical bingo draws” to determine winners, which is not how slot machines work. However, the likeness remains. The justices had some fun with this as they were not provided a picture of the machines.
Justice Samuel Alito wondered “how a court is going to decide whether these machines, which I don’t have a very clear picture of in my mind, are bingo or not bingo.If they are not bingo, they’re something else. Let’s say they’re ‘dingo.’”
The implication of this humorous question is that if bingo resembles a slot machine–style game, it’s more easily seen as a “high stakes” form of gambling that violates Texas’s gaming laws.
The Future of Bingo in Texas Tribal Casinos
Success for the tribe will rely heavily on the court following in the footsteps of California v. Cabazon and the IGRA.
However, if Texas wins the case, the justices will likely rule on the language of the previously-mentioned Restoration Act, which maintains that gaming prohibited in Texas is also prohibited on tribal lands.
The Supreme Court will rule over the case in the Spring.