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Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules New Tribal Gaming Compacts Invalid

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signs a gaming compact with Comanche Nation on April 21, 2020.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Governor Kevin Stitt did not have the authority to enter into gaming compact agreements with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation. The compacts have been ruled invalid.

A lawsuit filed by House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said the Governor has the authority to carry out the law set by the legislature and that these compacts were negotiated outside of that process.

"The limited question before this Court is whether Stitt had the authority to bind the State with respect to the new tribal gaming compacts with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes. We hold he did not," said Greg Treat, Senate President Pro Tempore.

Stitt signed compacts with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation at the end of April. The new agreements were a departure from the 15-year-old agreements and included Class III gaming and sports betting. They also included lower fees the two Tribes would have to pay the state to operate casinos. Stitt also granted the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation the ability to open new casinos outside of their jurisdiction.

The U.S. Department of Interior must approve gaming compacts between states and Tribal governments, but the federal agency did not rule before the deadline. This meant the compacts were automatically approved and appeared on the Federal Register at the end of June, which allowed them to take effect.

In early May, Oklahoma's Attorney General Mike Hunter issued an opinion saying the Governor lacked the authority to enter into these agreements with tribes. A letter written by the attorney general was also sent to the United States Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, calling on him to reject the Governor’s request to approve the compacts because they aren't authorized by the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit between Oklahoma’s legislative leadership and Stitt continued in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

"Even if the Governor had sought and obtained the Joint Committee's approval of these compacts as set forth in 74 O.S. Supp. 2012, § 1221, they would nevertheless be invalid. Just as the Governor is constrained by the statutory limitations on Class III gaming, so too is the Joint Committee," the ruling from the Court read.

Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matt Morgan reacted Tuesday afternoon to the ruling, saying he was glad the Oklahoma Supreme Court acted quickly.

"Today's decision confirms what the tribes have been saying since Governor Stitt first launched his go-it alone drive to rewrite our compacts. We believe firmly that the state-tribal relationship works best when we each act within the roles we have under the law," Morgan said.

Oklahoma legislative leaders House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat who jointly filed the lawsuit said the ruling confirms their belief that Stitt was acting outside of his authority.

"This has always been about preserving the separation of powers among the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government," Treat said. "When one branch of government acts outside of its authority, the other branches must take steps to restore the balance of power.”

But, Stitt said the ruling highlights a conflict between federal law and state laws.

"Oklahoma must address the entire gaming framework to ensure that all federally recognized Tribes can legally game and enjoy all the privileges conferred by IGRA," Stitt said. "Together with the McGirt decision, it’s clear that the State has significant work to do - in partnership with the Tribes - to resolve these matters. I look forward to doing the hard work for the benefit of all Oklahomans, and to ensure a sustainable future for our State."

The new agreements were negotiated in the middle of a legal dispute between many Oklahoma Tribes and the Governor and resulted in the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation having their memberships in the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association revoked. The two tribes also withdrew from the lawsuit against the governor.

In June, Stitt announced he had negotiated two similar compacts with the Kialegee Tribal Town and the Keetoowah Band of the Cherokees. The Governor’s authority to enter into those compacts is also being disputed in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Check back as this is a developing story.

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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