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Court rules lawsuits against Choctaw casinos can be heard in state courts

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July 9, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY - In a split vote the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in two cases that lawsuits against Choctaw casinos can be brought in state courts as well as tribal courts.

Choctaw Nation attorney Bob Rabon called the decision a blow to tribal sovereignty. "I've been representing Indian tribes for 40 years, and this is probably the single most difficult blow for tribal sovereignty that I have ever seen in my career," he said. "These tribes have never been subject to state court jurisdiction."

The court's ruling came from two lawsuits filed by individuals claiming injuries at the Choctaw Casino at Pocola. Rabon represented the Choctaw Nation in the case involving Danny Dye of Lavaca, Ark. who alleged he was injured in December 2005 when he was hit by a casino shuttle cart.

"This gaming is conducted on Indian country, the tribes' Indian country,"
Rabon said. "That's a pretty big grab of jurisdiction, in one fell swoop. .
We've still got arrows in our quiver. I'm not going to discuss what our strategy will be, but we're not done. We're not done by a long shot."

Rabon said the tribe will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
They will also exercise an option under its gaming compact with the state which is designed to address such legal issues.

"We can resolve this dispute the way the people of the state of Oklahoma agreed we would do it," Rabon said. "It says if there's a dispute regarding interpretation or one party believes the other party has breached the compact, that we first try to meet and resolve it. If that's not successful, then you submit it to arbitration. Then from there, you go into federal district court."

The Supreme Court majority wrote in their decision, "We hold that Oklahoma district courts are 'courts of competent jurisdiction' as that phrase is used in the Model Tribal Gaming Compact. Nothing in this opinion should be taken as a holding that a tribal court is not a 'court of competent jurisdiction' or should be taken as eliminating the tribal court as a forum available to a tort claimant if the claimant chooses to file suit in tribal court."

However, the dissenting justices wrote, "While state courts can acquire jurisdiction over tribal lands incidental to a congressional delegation of power to the state to regulate tribal activity, the Federal Indian Gaming Act does not involve a congressional delegation of power to the state of Oklahoma. Finally, when the state of Oklahoma wants a tribe to submit to the jurisdiction of a state court under a compact, the state of Oklahoma has explicitly said so."

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