Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Bid To Secure Land Now Lies In Congress

Written By Derek Helling on March 5, 2020 - Last Updated on January 31, 2023
Massachusetts tribe

Whether Massachusetts will get a fourth casino or a new reservation for an indigenous group now seems a bit more certain. In an appeal of a lawsuit filed by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the court has decided in favor of the defendant.

Although the tribe can appeal to the US Supreme Court, there is no guarantee that the court will even hear the case, much less reverse the lower courts’ rulings. The fate of the tribe and a possible casino in Brockton, Massachusetts, might actually be decided in Congress instead of the federal court system.

What happened in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s lawsuit?

Last Thursday, the US 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court’s ruling that the tribe found fault with. The question for the court was a matter of interpreting a 1934 federal law.

In 1934, the US Congress enacted the Indian Reorganization Act. That act listed a number of federally recognized tribes and gave the US Department of the Interior the authority to take land for reservations.

The Mashpee Tribe was not on the list at that time, however. Now, almost a century later, that fact is of huge importance.

The courts have ruled that because the tribe wasn’t given federal recognition until 2007, the DOI can’t seize land for its use under the 1934 IRA. This is a serious blow to the Mashpee’s hopes to build a casino in Taunton.

The possibility of a fourth commercial casino in Massachusetts looks more likely now. There is one other shoe that still needs to drop, however.

What Congress could still do about the situation

A bill to effectively decide this dispute in the Mashpee’s favor has already been passed by the US House. Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts sponsored the bill.

The US Senate has yet to act on the legislation, however. If the bill does get final approval, it would essentially nullify the earlier rulings that have tied the DOI’s hands on the Mashpee’s behalf.

If the Senate fails to act or votes the bill down, however, the tribe’s only recourse is a Supreme Court appeal. The court could pass on the appeal or uphold the lower court’s ruling, which would make the matter settled.

That means the state’s intentions of granting a license for a commercial casino in Brockton could go forward. There is already a developer interested.

Brockton casino development could happen

Rush Street Interactive is one of several potential developers for a casino in Brockton. That company sent a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last year.

In that letter, Rush Street outlined its belief that the tribe’s case would ultimately fail. That prediction appears to have been correct.

Until the Senate decides the fate of Keating’s bill, however, the MGC may hesitate to issue a license. The MGC is likely waiting to see whether the tribe will appeal to the Supreme Court, as well.

If the MGC does eventually issue a license to a commercial developer, that process could get going quickly. If the Mashpee tribe eventually prevails via a Supreme Court decision or Keating’s bill becoming law, the tribe would own exclusive gaming rights in the region.

That’s where the fate of this dispute lies now. The tribe’s best hope is with Keating’s ability to get his bill through Washington, D.C.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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