Now that the federal courts have decided that the commonwealth cannot prevent the Wampanoag tribe from operating bingo on its ancestral lands, can the Martha’s Vineyard Commission review the tribe’s plans to construct a bingo hall? The answer is not obvious and involves a complex interaction between state and federal law.

Tribal sovereignty is the starting point. Tribal sovereignty means that federally recognized tribes, like the Aquinnah Wampanoag, are generally immune from regulation by state governments. Under U.S. constitutional law, the federal government has nearly unfettered jurisdiction over recognized tribes, but states cannot assert authority over tribes unless Congress has empowered them to do so or the tribe has waived its sovereignty.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the federal statute at issue in the First Circuit case involving the bingo hall, illustrates this principle. In a 1987 case called Cabazon Band, the U.S. Supreme Court held that California could not prevent a federally recognized tribe from operating a casino on its land. Because the tribe was sovereign, state gaming laws could not touch it. In response to Cabazon Band, Congress passed IGRA, which created a framework to regulate the relationship between tribes and states over gaming.

The First Circuit’s decision turned on an interpretation of IGRA. Happily, the First Circuit ruled that the tribe exercised sufficient governmental jurisdiction over tribal lands — on which tribal members have lived for millennia — to permit the tribe to run bingo games.

But in requesting that the MVC review the Tribe’s plans to build a bingo hall, Aquinnah and Chilmark have played on a subtle but critical distinction between operating and constructing a bingo facility.

This is where a second federal statute, the Wampanoag Settlement Act, comes into play. This act, passed in 1988, gave effect to an agreement between the town, the Wampanoag tribal council, and the non-tribal taxpayers’ association of Gay Head (as it was then known) over the ownership of a large parcel of tribal lands which tribal members had held in common for centuries. The critical point is that the settlement act transferred 400 acres of land to the newly recognized Wampanoag Tribe — but subject to state law. The tribe now seeks to construct the bingo hall on part of these 400 acres.

The First Circuit confirmed that the tribe could operate a bingo facility on this land. But it said nothing about whether the tribe would have to comply with other state laws in constructing a new bingo building to house its bingo operations.

Two cases from the state Supreme Judicial Court are relevant here. First, the SJC ruled in 2004 that the tribe must comply with town zoning regulations under the plain terms of the Settlement Act. In that case, the tribe-owned shellfish hatchery sought to evade town zoning regulations by virtue of its sovereign immunity. The SJC disagreed and concluded that the Settlement Act and its underlying agreement “clearly establish[ed] a waiver of sovereign immunity” as to the settlement lands.

Second, in a landmark 1977 case called Island Properties, the SJC held that, in certain critical ways, the MVC’s powers to regulate land use exceed those of the towns. This case and the state law which establishes the MVC make clear that MVC has broad discretion to regulate projects that it deems to be developments of regional impact. With Aquinnah’s and Chilmark’s referral of the bingo hall to the MVC, that review process has already begun.

If the rule from the shellfish hatchery case is that the tribe must comply with town regulations, and the rule from Island Properties is that MVC decisions have at least the effect of town regulations, then there is a plausible argument that the MVC could review at least certain aspects of the tribe’s plans to construct a bingo hall.

The challenge is in figuring out how these SJC cases interact with the First Circuit’s decision. How far could the MVC go in placing conditions on the construction of a bingo hall? Could the MVC really go so far as to block the tribe from building a facility necessary which would allow it to take advantage of an entitlement under federal law? These are deep questions to which there are no easy answers.

Duncan Pickard, a graduate of Island schools, is a lawyer based in New York. The views expressed here are his own.