The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a Texas Native American tribe, scored a Supreme Court victory today in its quest to offer bingo games in the second-largest state.
The US Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo’s bingo efforts. (Image: Fred Schilling/Supreme Court)
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court said federal law doesn’t allow Texas to prevent the tribe from offering bingo on its reservation near El Paso. The ruling could mark the end of a nearly three-decade rift between the tribe and the state. Previously, a local federal district court and the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the tribe.
The State concedes that its laws do not forbid, prevent, effectively stop, or make bingo impossible. Instead, the State admits that it allows the game subject to fixed rules about the time, place, and manner in which it may be conducted,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion. “From this alone, it would seem to follow that Texas’s laws fall on the regulatory rather than prohibitory side of the line — and thus may not be applied on tribal lands.”
Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor joined that opinion.
Texas law currently allows bingo games only if they’re conducted for charitable reasons. The state is widely viewed as one of the last great, untapped frontiers in domestic gaming, and while it has a lottery, lawmakers there consistently rebuff gaming expansion efforts, including casinos and sports wagering.
SCOTUS Ruling Could Be Game Changer for Some Tribes
The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe could have implications for other tribes across the country seeking to enter the gaming industry.
Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, along with the Alabama-Coushatta — another Texas tribe — became federally recognized in 1987. That was a year prior to the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which set the stage for a boom in tribal gaming.
Today, tribal operators dominate casino gaming in states such as California, Florida, and Oklahoma. Equipped with deep pockets, Native American tribal gaming entities are now players in sought-after commercial gaming destinations, including Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and some regional markets.
Whether or not today’s Supreme Court ruling paves the way for Texas tribes or others currently not involved in the casino business to become industry players remains to be seen. But it’s clear the Court views the state’s efforts at regulation as much different than outright prohibition.
“Texas’s understanding of the word “prohibit” would risk turning the Restoration Act’s terms into an indeterminate mess. In Texas’s view, laws regulating gaming activities become laws prohibiting gaming activities — an interpretation that violates the rule against ‘ascribing to one word a meaning so broad’ that it assumes the same meaning as another statutory term,” according to the Gorsuch opinion.
In penning the minority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. notes Texas controls its gaming laws, and those are applicable to Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.
“The Court’s approach also winds up treating gambling violations more leniently than other violations of Texas law. This makes little sense, as the whole point of the provision at issue was to further restrict gaming on the Tribe’s lands,” wrote Roberts.
He was joined by Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr.