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Tribe argues for reservation casino

COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe argued before the state’s Supreme Court Wednesday that current law allows them to have a reservation casino — even though video gambling is banned elsewhere within the state’s borders.

The 2,800-member Catawba Indian Nation is appealing a circuit judge’s 2012 ruling that, not only does the law that allows those vessels not give the Catawbas the right to gamble, but that the tribe gave up that right voluntarily in its settlement agreement.

In that agreement, signed in 1993 with state and federal governments, the tribe agreed to drop a lawsuit claiming that broken treaties dating back to Andrew Jackson’s presidency meant they should get hundreds of square miles of land. In exchange, the tribe was given its current reservation in South Carolina and permission to open two bingo halls as well as to any additional gambling allowed by the state.

It’s that last provision — to the “same extent” allowed under state law — that the tribe says entitles it to have video gambling on its reservation. Billy Wilkins, an attorney for the Catawba Indian Nation, told justices Wednesday that a 2005 state law that allows gambling cruises to leave from the state’s ports means South Carolina should allow the tribe to offer the same games at a new gambling hall on its 7,000-acre York County reservation.

“The question is what was authorized, not where it was authorized,” Wilkins said.

In their initial lawsuit against South Carolina and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, the Catawbas said the gambling hall would be a critical component to their reservation. An economic study posted with the lawsuit said the casino and two hotels to be built nearby would yield more than 4,000 jobs, bring in $259 million in annual revenue and pay nearly $110 million to the state through gaming fees and taxes.

State prosecutors have consistently argued that the same law that the tribe relies upon notes that gambling cannot begin until boats reach international waters and specifically prohibits any casino-like gambling in areas controlled by South Carolina. Before the court Wednesday, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Sonny Jones said the tribe lost a similar lawsuit in 2007 and is now using a different legal theory to try to make the same case all over again.

“There was a full-scale litigation at the first one,” Jones said. “There was no holds barred in that litigation.”

The justices will issue their ruling later.

The Catawba tribe has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get some form of gambling. A Rock Hill bingo hall was open from 1997 to 2006 but was ultimately overtaken by competition from the state lottery, and the tribe has plans to open a new facility in March.

Last summer, the tribe filed an application with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 16 acres of land near King Mountain, N.C., into trust for the tribe, saying a 220,000-square-foot casino, 1,500 hotel rooms, plus restaurants and shops would create more than 3,000 permanent positions on top of hundreds of construction jobs.

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