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Appeals court dismisses last hurdle to Nottawaseppi casino

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. - A federal appeals court has tossed out a lawsuit by an anti-Indian casino group, clearing the way for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi to build its long-planned FireKeepers Casino near Battle Creek.

Judge Judith W. Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling July 3, dismissing the last legal challenged by Citizens Exposing Truth About Casinos against the tribe's proposed $270 million casino project.

CETAC had challenged the Interior Department's decision in 2002 to take 79 acres of land into trust as an initial reservation for the tribe to build a casino and conduct Class III gaming under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Rogers affirmed the property qualifies as an initial reservation, which will allow the tribe to break ground this fall. The Huron band was reaffirmed as a federally acknowledged tribe in 1995. It has around 800 members.

Interior placed the land into trust in 2006, seven years after the tribe applied for trust status and four years after CETAC began its lawsuit. Rogers' ruling marked the second time the lawsuit was trounced.

During its long legal opposition, the group came up with a variety of arguments, including, among others, that the Interior secretary has failed to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act; that the secretary's authority to take land into trust violated the ''non-delegation doctrine''; that the 78-acre property did not qualify for exception under IGRA's rule against gaming on trust lands acquired after Oct. 17, 1988; and that the definition of ''reservation'' is land used only for tribal residences.

The district court tossed CETAC's lawsuit for the first time, Rogers noted in her ruling, ''observing that the group's 'objective is to delay or, if possible, prevent the construction of the band's proposed casino altogether.'''

''This is a great day for the tribe and all our supporters in the Calhoun County region,'' said NHBP Chairman Laura W. Spurr. ''Today, justice was done for our members and their families. The perseverance and patience of the Huron Band people is a testament to the generations that came before us.''

The casino will bring the tribe ''one step closer to self-sufficiency'' by providing funding for housing, health care and education, Spurr said.

The tribe has a development and management agreement with Full House Resorts, a public company traded on the American Stock Exchange. The agreement is under review by the National Indian Gaming Commission. The tribe previously secured $5 million in interim financing for the design and development of the FireKeepers Casino from IGT, a leading manufacturer of slot machines.

CETAC's only recourse is to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, a course of action that would not likely succeed.

CETAC Secretary Marcia Redfield told the Battle Creek Enquirer that she was not surprised by the decision.

''It makes me kind of sick. I don't look forward to a casino here,'' Redfield said.

The Huron band is one of four Michigan tribes that entered a tribal/state compact in 1998. The others were the Pokagon and Little River bands of Potawatomi, and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa.

In a majority decision May 31, the state Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit filed by Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos, another anti-Indian group, which had claimed that the compacts were illegally ratified.

''The Huron Band is the last of those four to get the go ahead for a casino,'' said tribal spokesman Donna Halinski.

The decision is good news for the Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi Indians, too, she said.

''They are still facing opposition by these citizens groups and it's the same opposition, so it shows that everything is in their favor because it's the exact same issue,'' Halinski said.

Gun Lake is awaiting the outcome of an identical lawsuit opposing its land into trust application, filed by Michigan Gambling Opposition, a sister group of CETAC.

D.K. Sprague, the Gun Lake Band's chairman, congratulated the Huron band for successfully defending its federal rights to conduct gaming, and called on MichGO to drop its ''meritless appeal'' against Gun Lake immediately.

''Michigan has been delayed thousands of great jobs, and millions of local and state revenue-sharing dollars because of the lawsuits,'' Sprague said.