US Supreme Court Strengthens Tribal Autonomy With Texas Bingo Ruling

Written By Derek Helling on June 17, 2022 - Last Updated on June 30, 2022
Bingo Lawsuit Slightly Strengthened For Tribal Sovereignty Over Gaming In Texas

For decades, the state of Texas has sought to limit gambling on tribal lands within its borders and, for the most part, got the courts to go along with it. That recently changed with a US Supreme Court ruling in a Texas bingo lawsuit.

The court’s decision has effectively strengthened the rights of tribal authorities to regulate gaming on their sovereign territory regardless of how the governments of surrounding states feel about it. By no means, though, does it leave states powerless in that regard.

SCOTUS delivers narrow tribal win in Texas bingo lawsuit

It’s a rare win for tribal bingo in Texas. On Tuesday, the court voted 5-4 to vacate the ruling of the lower Fifth Circuit Court and remand Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas back to the Fifth. How it did that was a narrow victory for the tribes involved.

The majority opinion essentially found the Fifth’s ruling that Texas had regulatory powers over tribal gaming within its borders faulty. A key issue was the separation of prohibition and regulation.

Justice Neil Gorsuch‘s writing does not challenge Texas’ right to ban any type of gaming it wishes within its borders. He also did not question whether such bans should apply to tribal gaming operations within the state.

Rather, he argued that Texas has no authority to regulate gambling that the state has not banned on sovereign tribal territory. In plainer language, Texas can tell tribes they can’t offer bingo at all. Texas cannot, however, tell tribes how to offer bingo on their own land.

The history of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas is an interesting story. It also points toward how tribal entities in other states should interpret this ruling.

How Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas got here

The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Indian Tribe and Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas filed this complaint against the state in October of 2020. At the time, Texas had been effectively blocking attempts to expand the tribes’ electronic bingo games for decades.

Tribal gaming in Texas is kind of a unique animal. From 1968 to 1987, Texas had a compact with those tribes to which the US government was not a party. Most tribal casino compacts are three-way agreements between the appropriate tribal group, the local state, and the US Dept. of the Interior.

In 1987, Texas decided to end those agreements. The US Congress stepped in and enacted legislation that opened the door to continued gaming for the tribes. However, that federal legislation stated that tribal gaming would be subject to Texas’ gambling prohibitions.

Thus, Gorsuch’s differentiation of prohibition and regulation has a lot of importance. He aptly stated that,

“It would seem to follow that Texas’ laws fall on the regulatory rather than prohibitory side of the line – and thus may not be applied on tribal lands.”

Because the Court simply vacated the Fifth’s ruling and remanded it back to the lower court, this opinion is not binding upon all tribal gaming entities and states across the country. Rather, it’s simply the Supreme Court telling the lower court that you got this one wrong; try again.

There is still some value in this ruling for other tribal casinos, though. It just would require a similar set of circumstances to arise to be of use.

Does this mean states can’t regulate tribal gaming?

Absolutely not. It simply strengthens the concept that states can’t regulate gambling they permit when it’s happening on tribal lands. Thus, should another state attempt to do so, lawyers for the tribal casinos could use Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas as precedent on their side now.

Such a situation might not arise anywhere outside of Texas, though. By and large, most other tribal gaming happens under traditional compacts. In those relationships, state governments and tribes agree to all the terms of gambling on sovereign lands.

Appropriately then, a narrow ruling provides a small amount of new leverage for tribal gaming in the US. For tribal bingo halls in Texas, this ruling means you can, in fact, mess with Texas.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including legislation and litigation in the gaming industry. He enjoys reading hundreds of pages of a gambling bill or lawsuit for his audience. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa.

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