Arkansas Supreme Court rules for Cherokee Nation Businesses in Pope Co. casino case

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 5,714 views 

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday (Oct. 21) ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation Businesses and against Gulfside Casino Partnership in a long-running controversial series of legal and regulatory challenges to place a casino in Pope County.

The dispute arises from actions taken soon after voters approved The Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment, which requires the Racing Commission to issue licenses to Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Southland Racing Corporation in West Memphis, and to entities in Pope County and Jefferson County.

The high court’s ruling in Cherokee Nation Businesses and Arkansas Racing Commission vs. Gulfside Casino Partnership centered on if Gulfside was a legal applicant for a casino license.

In layman’s terms, the court declared that until the application process was initiated by the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC), which oversees casino licensing regulation, there could be no applicants.

“…an entity is not a casino applicant until the application process commences. In other words, an entity could not become a ‘casino applicant’ until the ARC opened the application window in May 2019. Once an entity became a casino applicant in May 2019, it had to obtain a letter of support from ‘the county judge.’ Ark. Const. amend. 100, § 4(n). Here, the use of the definite article “the” before “county judge” indicates a specific, definite judge, the current county judge – not a former county judge or retired county judge – because those are not ‘the’ county judge. Our prior cases support this plain reading of the Amendment,” the majority opinion stated.

“Accordingly, we hold that the plain language of Amendment 100, passed by the people of Arkansas stating ‘the county judge’ means the county judge in office at the time the ‘casino applicant’ submitted its application to the ARC. Gulfside urges us to reach an opposite conclusion and asserts that the Rule and the statute add a temporal requirement that is not included in Amendment 100,” the majority opinion also said.

Gulfside Casino received a letter of endorsement from then-Pope County Judge Ed Gibson before he left office in December 2018. “If a license is issued for a casino in Pope County Arkansas, I give my support for Gulfside Casino Partnership,” he wrote.

However, the ARC did not open up the process for applications – the contingency point of the Supreme Court’s decision – until May 2019.

Cherokee Nation Businesses received the support of the current county judge, Ben Cross, during that application process.

Dustin McDaniel, Legal Counsel for Cherokee Nation Businesses and a former Arkansas Attorney General, said today’s ruling was significant.

“Today’s ruling is exciting and greatly appreciated. I know CNB is ready to put an end to litigation and start building. We anticipate CNB’s license will be issued as soon as the mandate is effective, and we will work quickly to bring final resolution to any remaining lawsuits. Once the last legal hurdles are cleared, CNB will deliver the $38.8 million check committed in the Economic Development Agreement with Pope County and commence construction,” McDaniel said.

“CNB appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision on this important matter. We want to thank Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the community at large for their faith and unwavering support. Our team is extremely excited to deliver the world-class Legends Resort & Casino and bring jobs and economic growth to the River Valley,” said Chuck Garrett, CEO, Cherokee Nation Businesses. “We also look forward to delivering on the $38.8 million Economic Development Agreement executed with Pope County, which will allow communities to invest in police, fire and other infrastructure projects while the casino resort is under construction. It is our sincere promise to replicate the success we have achieved in other markets by working cooperatively with state and local officials to make our project a success on day one.”

Casey Castleberry, counsel for Gulfside Casino Partnership, issued this statement to Talk Business & Politics, indicating that the legal fight has not ended.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, but this isn’t the end of the road. We remain committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to the state,” Castleberry said.