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Cherokee appeals Catawba casino decision

The Catawba expect to have a temporary casino facility up and running this summer. The Catawba expect to have a temporary casino facility up and running this summer.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is appealing an April 16 decision from District Court Judge James A. Boasberg that paved the way for the Catawba Indian Nation to develop a casino in Cleveland County.

The tribe filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday, May 21.

“As Judge Boasberg noted, this issue is complex and his ruling was a close call,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed in a statement. “We continue to believe the Department of Interior violated law in authorizing the Catawba casino, and our appeal is simply the next step in the process to ensure that justice is done.”

In his 55-page opinion, Boasberg examined each EBCI claim in detail but ultimately ruled in favor of the defendants on every count.

“Plaintiffs (EBCI) raise several close and complex questions of statutory and regulatory construction, and the Court certainly cannot fault them for rolling the dice here,” Boasberg wrote. “In the end, though, they come up with snake eyes, as on each claim they either lack standing or lose on the merits.”

The Catawba declined to comment on the EBCI’s decision to appeal, but in an April 16 press release issued after Boasberg filed his opinion Chief Bill Harris said that such an appeal would be “frivolous.”

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“This is the right decision and the one we anticipated from the court to reject the litigation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” he said. “We hope this exhaustive review of the facts and emphatic 55-page decision means the Eastern Band will not seek a frivolous appeal and that our two tribes can now work together for the betterment of our people.”

The EBCI filed its initial lawsuit against the DOI on March 17, 2020, five days after the agency approved the Catawba’s application to take 16.5 acres in Kings Mountain into trust as tribal land. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma joined the EBCI in its suit as an intervenor on the plaintiff side, while the Catawba joined as an intervenor on the defendant’s side. 

The Catawba — a federally recognized tribe based in Rock Hill, South Carolina — had been attempting to build a casino in Kings Mountain for years. The tribe hoped launching its own gaming operation would provide a needed economic boost to its people, but state laws in South Carolina blocked the Catawba from building one there. Kings Mountain is located just over 30 miles away from Rock Hill. Having the land taken into trust was the highest hurdle the Catawba had to clear to make their planned casino a reality.

However, the EBCI denounced the Interior’s decision to grant the Catawba’s land-to-trust application as “rushed,” “flawed,” and in violation of “the plain language of federal law.” It ran contrary to provisions in the Administrative Procedure Act and the 1993 Settlement Act that set the framework for the Catawba’s status as a federally recognized tribe, the EBCI argued, and Interior’s approval process violated both the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The tribe also claimed that the DOI arbitrarily ignored the allegedly suspect background of the Catawba’s business partner Wallace Cheves.

The Catawba broke ground on the casino project last July with the intention of opening the first phase this summer. However, as the lawsuit dragged on the tribe decided to wait on permanent construction until resolving the legal issue. A temporary 500-slot casino contained in prefabricated modular buildings will open this summer, to be torn down once the permanent, 1,300-slot first phase opens next year. The EBCI anticipates that the new casino could eat away up to $100 million per year in revenues currently enjoyed by its facilities in Cherokee and Murphy. 

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