Gov. Deval Patrick filed a lawsuit against the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Monday seeking to block the tribe’s plans to build a casino in Aquinnah.
The 16-page complaint filed in the state Supreme Judicial Court claims the tribe breached a 1983 land claims settlement agreement by taking steps to allow gaming in Aquinnah. Those steps include forming a gaming commission and passing a gaming ordinance, the state said.
The complaint, signed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, asks the state’s highest court to declare any attempt by the tribe to open a casino invalid.
“The Aquinnah tribe has taken actions to license, open, and operate gaming establishments on settlement lands in violation of Massachusetts and local law and in breach of the settlement agreement’s provisions,” the complaint says in part.
Defendants in the complaint are The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation.
Heather Johnson, press secretary for Governor Patrick, said Tuesday there would be no further comment.
A statement released by the tribe at the end of the day Tuesday said in part: “We are still in the process of reviewing the state’s complaint, so we are unable to comment on the specifics at this time. However, this is really nothing new or unexpected.
“The tribe has now gone through a federal process to reaffirm our right to game pursuant to IGRA and the National Indian Gaming Commission, and the Department of the Interior has reaffirmed that right. The tribe has no intention of giving up our right to game under federal law, will continue to vigorously defend that right, and fully expects to prevail.”
The filing in the state’s highest court comes three weeks after the chairman of the tribe claimed it had federal approval to move forward with plans to build a casino on the Island. Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the tribe was “totally cleared” to convert the tribe’s unfinished community center into a high-stakes bingo hall and would do so quickly.
The state and town counsel argue the tribe waived its sovereignty rights in the 1983 land settlement agreement, which later led to the tribe’s federal recognition. Among other things the settlement allowed 400 acres of public and private land in Aquinnah to be transferred to the Vineyard tribe. The tribe agreed that those lands would be subject to state and local laws.
The agreement was tested in court for the first time in 1999, after the tribe built a shed on land fronting Menemsha Pond without a permit from the town. The state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the settlement agreement in 2004 and found that the tribe was subject to state and local zoning laws. The court also found that the tribe had partly waived its sovereign immunity rights.
“The settlement agreement was the capstone to nine years of litigation and was a carefully struck, negotiated settlement among sophisticated parties represented by legal counsel,” state attorneys wrote in the complaint.
The tribe has taken the position that the Indian Gaming Rights Act enacted in 1988 supersedes the settlement agreement.
In the complaint filed Monday, the state said the tribe has made it clear they intend to allow gaming in Aquinnah “as soon as possible,” making it imperative that the court declare in advance that this action is illegal.
“The Aquinnah tribe’s actions, as alleged in this complaint, are so considerable that they go to the very essence of the parties’ contractual bargain in the settlement agreement,” the state said.
George Sylva, an assistant clerk to the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, said on Tuesday the court would wait for a response from the tribe before assigning a judge to the case. The supreme court for Suffolk County is a single justice court. The clerk said he had contacted the tribe’s attorneys at Crowell Law Offices of Seattle, Wash. and Donoghue, Barrett & Singal of Boston on Tuesday morning.
The nature of the proceeding will be up to the judge, Mr. Sylva said
“The judge could schedule a hearing on it or could do it based on the papers,” he said. “The judge could also transfer it to the superior court too, that is an alternative. But they will have to look at all of the papers first and make a decision.”
The state approved a commercial gaming law in 2011 which created three commercial casino licenses. One license was reserved for an American Indian tribe. Governor Patrick awarded that license to the Mashpee Wampanoags, and refused to negotiate with the Vineyard tribe, citing the sovereignty issue. While saying she wanted to revisit the state’s rejection of the Aquinnah tribe’s bid for a commercial license, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the tribe was moving forward under a different section of the IGRA to build a high stakes poker facility in Aquinnah.
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais was unseated by Tobias Vanderhoop in a closely-watched election two weeks ago. He does not take office until January. He has said he supports gaming as an option for the tribe, but has not taken a position on the Aquinnah casino.
On Tuesday, Mr. Vanderhoop did not comment at length on the latest development, but did reaffirm his position in support of gaming.
“We do believe the rights exist and we’ve received confirmation of that recently,” he said. “If they are challenged there’s only one appropriate response and that is to defend the rights of the tribe.”
Mr. Vanderhoop said he spoke with the governor directly following the election last month and expected to be in contact with him again soon.