El Paso’s Tigua Indians can legally operate bingo-based games at their Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in the Lower Valley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision on Wednesday.
The decision is a major victory for the Tiguas, formally known as the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, in their three-decade fight with the state of Texas over gambling.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who has extensive experience in tribal law, wrote the majority opinion. He was joined in the decision by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh.
“The tribe is obviously very pleased with the vindication offered by the opinion handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States this morning, and the fact that the court agreed with our interpretation of the Restoration Act,” said Brant Martin, the Tiguas’ Fort Worth-based attorney. “We look forward to continuing the litigation in the lower courts under the guidance provided by the Supreme Court.”
The ruling doesn’t allow the Tiguas to add other forms of gambling.
“None of this is to say that the Tribe may offer any gaming activity on whatever terms it wishes. It is only to say that the Fifth Circuit (Court of Appeals) and Texas have erred in their understanding of the Restoration Act,” Gorsuch wrote.
Spokespersons for Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling.
Patrons at Speaking Rock Entertainment Center on Wednesday celebrated the tribe’s victory before the high court.
“I don’t know why Texas is doing the things they do. I mean, they’re acting like they’re their own country or something like that,” said Aaron Mitchell, who said he’s been coming regularly to the Tiguas’ gambling operation since moving to the El Paso area three years ago.
“I think it’s great because it would be able to help the city and everything. I’m not sure why (Texas officials) are making such a big deal of it,” Cynthia Monteone said of Tigua gambling efforts.
The legal fight between Texas and the Tiguas started in the early 1990s, when the tribe tried to expand gambling on its land and the state continuously went to federal court to block those efforts. The Alabama-Coushatta tribe in East Texas has engaged in a similar fight. That tribe likely will benefit from Wednesday’s ruling as well.
The crux of the issue is the 1987 Restoration Act, which was passed by Congress to extend federal recognition to the two Texas tribes. That same law, however, includes a provision that prevents the Tiguas and Alabama-Coushatta from offering gambling that is prohibited in Texas. They are the only tribes in the United States barred by a state government from offering gambling on their land.
The Tiguas say their games of chance at Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in El Paso’s Lower Valley are based on bingo, a game that is permitted and regulated in Texas. The state has argued that its laws on bingo prohibit the kind of games offered by the tribe.
Gorsuch rejected the state’s argument in the majority opinion.
“No one questions that Texas ‘regulates’ bingo by fixing the time, place, and manner in which the game may be conducted. The State submits only that, in some sense, its laws also ‘prohibit’ bingo — when the game fails to comply with the State’s time, place, and manner regulations. But on that reading, the law’s dichotomy between prohibition and regulation collapses,” he wrote.
Roberts criticized that reasoning in his dissent.
“A straightforward reading of the statute’s text makes clear that all gaming activities prohibited in Texas are also barred on the Tribe’s land. The Court’s contrary interpretation is at odds with the statute’s plain meaning, conflicts with an unambiguous tribal resolution that the Act was ‘enacted in accordance with,’ … and makes a hash of the statute’s structure,” the chief justice wrote.
Todd Curry, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who researches tribal legal issues, said the Tigua ruling is another example of Gorsuch reshaping the high court’s views on Indigenous law cases since his appointment in 2017.
“Tribal sovereignty wins, which is typical of Gorsuch. He only had to convince one (of the five other conservative justices), and he got Barrett. Also, it is quite clear that he thought very little of Texas’ arguments,” Curry said.
Ricky Sylestine, chair of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ Tribal Council, hailed the ruling.
“The court’s decision is an affirmation of Tribal sovereignty and a victory for the Texas economy,” Sylestine said in a statement. “The highest court in the land has made clear that our Tribe has the right to legally operate electronic bingo on our reservation, just as we have the past six years.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, celebrated the Supreme Court decision.
“Today’s historic opinion marks a long-overdue victory for the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe. 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,” Escobar said.
She said she would continue to push for legislation that would codify the Tiguas’ rights to conduct gambling on its land.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, has repeatedly sided with the state and the U.S. Supreme Court has passed on numerous opportunities to weigh in. That changed last year, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the latest dispute.
The Biden administration has sided with the Tiguas, urging the Supreme Court to find that the 5th Circuit has erred in its rulings over the past three decades. The high court heard oral arguments in the case in February, with justices giving no indication of how they might rule.
The case now goes back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for further action.
“The Restoration Act bans as a matter of federal law on tribal lands only those gaming activities also banned in Texas. To allow the Fifth Circuit to revise its precedent and reconsider this case in the correct light, its judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Gorsuch wrote.
A third federally recognized tribe in Texas, the Kickapoo, also offer bingo-based games at a casino in Eagle Pass. The state has not challenged the Kickapoo gambling because the tribe is covered by a different federal law than the Tiguas and Alabama-Coushatta, the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act.
Corrie Boudreaux contributed to this story.