The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is facing a renewed legal threat to its ambition to build the $1 billion First Light Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts.
A group of Taunton residents have asked a federal judge in Boston to reopen the lawsuit that derailed the project in 2016.
The plaintiffs were initially successful in their claim that the Obama administration had erred by taking a parcel of land in Taunton, and one in Mashpee, into trust for the tribe as its sovereign reservation.
They argued that a 2009 Supreme Court judgment known as the Carcieri Decision prevented the US government from taking land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934.
Stripped of Sovereignty
The judge, and later the Trump administration, agreed. Despite being descended from the Wampanoags who broke bread with the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, the Mashpee were only recognized in 2007.
The process began to strip the tribe of its reservation and, with that, its right to organize gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).
But in June 2020, US District Judge Paul Friedman reversed the 2016 decision, which he called “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”
The Trump administration appealed the ruling, but earlier this year the new administration withdrew the complaint and affirmed the Obama-era decision.
The federal government’s exercise of jurisdiction began as early as the 1820s when the United States considered the Mashpee in the context of determining whether to apply the contemporaneous removal policy,” wrote Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.
“The United States excluded the tribe from forced removal west of the Mississippi River, thereby protecting Mashpee land from non-Indian settlement,” he added.
Now, the group of residents want the court to take up two counts that from their original complaint that were put on hold back in 2016. The first is the claim that the Mashpee cannot claim historical ties to the land in Taunton, a prerequisite for the process of taking land into trust.
Second is the claim that two parcels of land separated by physical distance cannot be one reservation. Mashpee is on Cape Cod, around 40 miles away from Taunton. And again, the plaintiffs want an order removing the land from trust.
The time for adjudication is now,” the residents said in their filing. “Plaintiffs respectfully request this court to restore the administratively closed counts … and otherwise reopen the case to permit additional filings for adjudication.”
The 2016 decision led to catastrophic financial setbacks for the tribe. But in December, The Taunton Daily Gazette reported plans for the First Light Casino were back on and that Malaysian casino giant Genting was still on board and financing the project.
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