Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information.
El Paso’s Tigua tribe can legally conduct electronic bingo games at its Lower Valley casino, the US Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in the latest twist in the tribe’s decadeslong legal battle with the state of Texas over gambling.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that federal law allows on tribal lands gaming activities that are not banned in Texas. Bingo is allowed in Texas.
It voided an appeals court’s 2020 decision against the Tiguas and sent the case back to the lower court.
Chief Justice John Roberts issued a dissenting opinion.
Brant Martin, a Fort Worth attorney representing the Tiguas, said the tribe is pleased by the “vindication offered with the opinion handed down, and the fact the court agreed with our interpretation of the (federal) Restoration Act.”
“We look forward to continuing the litigation in the lower courts under the guidance provided by the opinion,” he said.
Officials with the Texas Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“In this case, Texas contends that Congress expressly ordained that all of its gaming laws should be treated as surrogate federal law enforceable on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Reservation (the Tiguas tribe’s formal name),” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “In the end, however, we find no evidence Congress endowed state law with anything like the power Texas claims.”
“The Restoration Act bans as a matter of federal law on tribal lands only those gaming activities banned in Texas,” Gorsuch wrote. Bingo is not prohibited, but is regulated by the state government, the opinion noted.
More:What’s bingo? Key question in US Supreme Court hearing on El Paso Tigua Indians’ gambling case
More:Fair tribal gaming bill benefiting El Paso’s Tiguas passes US House, moves to Senate
‘Sweepstakes’ gaming was ruled illegal
In 2016, the tribe switched to bingo games at its Speaking Rock Entertainment Center after a court ruled its “sweepstakes” gaming was illegal.
The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in April 2020 ruled against the Tiguas, resulting in the case going to the Supreme Court.
A Texas district court allowed bingo games to continue at Speaking Rock while the tribe’s appeals made their way through the courts.
The US Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong in its understanding of the Restoration Act, voided its decision, and sent the case back to the lower court to allow it “to revise its precedent and reconsider this case in the correct light.”
Lawyers for the Tiguas, the Attorney General’s Office, and the US Department of Justice, which sided with the tribe, presenting their oral arguments to the Supreme Court justices in February.
US Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, lauded the court’s decision in a statement, which said in part:
“I congratulate all those who worked on behalf of the Tiguas to help reverse targeted discrimination they’ve had to endure, grant this community its right to sovereignty and to usher in the economic independence that will come with this ruling.”
“While the Tiguas rightfully celebrate this win today, I remain committed to ensuring their legal right is codified forever into law.”
She urged the US Senate to pass a pending bill she authored that deals with the issue.
More:Tiguas to file appeal after judge issues a permanent injunction on gaming operations
Texas claims Tigua bingo machines are like slot machines
The Tiguas use electronic bingo machines that Texas’ lawyers argued are like slot machines.
The court opinion talked about this issue and whether, as Texas’ lawyers argued courts, might be called on to decide if the tribe’s “electronic bingo” qualifies as bingo, or “constitutes an entirely different sort of gaming activity absolutely banned by Texas and thus forbidden as a matter of federal law.”
That issue and the Texas Attorney General lawyers’ concerns about it are “irrelevant,” the court opinion stated.
“If Texas thinks good governance requires a different set of rules, its appeals are better directed to those who make the laws than those charged with following them,” the opinion states.
In his dissenting opinion, Roberts wrote in part:
“The question presented in this case is whether all of Texas’s gaming laws apply on tribal land, or only those laws that categorically ban a particular game.
“The Court today concludes that the latter reading of the statute is the better one. I disagree.
“The Court’s approach also winds up treating gambling violations more leniently than other violations of Texas law,” which Roberts said, “makes little sense.”
Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421; email@example.com; @Vickolenc on Twitter.
Read:Stay cool with these 7 must-try summer foods in El Paso