WASHINGTON - The Gun Lake Tribe has won a key victory in its long-drawn-out battle to build a casino.
In a 2 - 1 majority decision April 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld a decision by a federal district court to allow the Interior Department to take 147 acres of land into trust, paving the way for work to begin on the Gun Lake Casino in southwest Michigan.
The decision was hailed by D.K. Sprague, chairman of the Gun Lake Tribe, the formal name of which is the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians.
''Today we thank the Creator for bringing our tribe a brighter future. This victory would not have been possible if not for our ancestors who suffered greatly to preserve our sovereignty. We applaud the court for again affirming our rights founded in our treaties, the Constitution, acts of Congress, and decision of the Supreme Court,'' Sprague said in a press release.
The tribe plans to build a $200 million casino in Wayland County with around 2,500 slots and 80 gaming tables. The casino will directly employ 1,800 people with a total average annual compensation package of $40,000, and provide an additional 3,100 indirect jobs and more than $20 million per year in direct purchases of goods and services from the area's businesses.
Under a tribal-state compact, the state will receive 8 percent of the casino's take from slot machines for the first $150 million, 10 percent between $150 million and $300 million, and 12 percent above $300 million. Local governments will receive 2 percent of the revenue.
More than 10,000 members of 40 organizations formed the Friends of Gun Lake Indians to support the tribe against its opponents.
''The local community is united behind the tribe and Gun Lake Casino for the jobs, economic growth and local revenue sharing dollars it will provide to our community. The tribe and thousands of unemployed residents have suffered far too long,'' said Roger VanVolkinburg, Wayland Township supervisor, in the release.
The appeals court ruling was a huge victory over Michigan Gaming Opposition, an anti-Indian casino group in alliance with 23 Is Enough!, Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos and Citizens Exposing Truths About Casinos. MichGO has plagued the tribe's efforts with lawsuits and appeals since 1999. The anti-Indian groups all share the same legal firm - Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Gun Lake filed a land-into-trust application in 2001 to re-establish reservation lands for the purpose of economic development under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Interior approved the application in May 2005, and a month later, MichGO sued Interior.
In March 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Garrett Penn found that MichGO could not prove any of the facts it alleged in the issues it raised in support of its argument to stop Interior from taking Gun Lake's land into trust. Having reviewed the entire record, Penn wrote, ''The court concludes that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issues of material fact and the defendants and intervener are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.''
The judge, however, issued a stay preventing the land from being taken into trust pending the outcome of MichGo's inevitable appeal, which the group filed almost immediately.
According to a report on www.mlive.com, MichGO intends to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
MichGO's attorney, John Bursch, a partner with Warner Norcross & Judd, said the ruling was a disappointment, according to the report.
''But we are extremely encouraged by the dissent of Judge [Janice Rogers] Brown,'' he said. ''She excoriated the majority and agreed with us on the major issue in this case, the constitutionality of the statute that gives the federal government the authority to take this land in trust for a casino. We plan to file a cert petition asking the United States Supreme Court to hear the issue. And given that the Supreme Court majority's judicial philosophy aligns with that of Judge Brown, we are very confident they will take the case.''
Former MichGO head Todd Boorsma, longtime opponent of the project, actually celebrated the decision, calling it a ''huge victory for the opponents'' because the dissent sets the stage for the appeal, according to the report.
''This is what we had hoped for because we knew two of the panel members were not on our side. It allows us to go to the next level,'' he said.
Boorsma stepped down as MichGO leader a few months ago to run for state representative for the 88th District - where Gun Lake tribal lands are located.
James Nye, a Gun Lake spokesman, said MichGO indeed has the option of seeking Supreme Court review.
''But we don't think they stand a very good chance of getting a review,'' Nye said, pointing to the recent Supreme Court decision in a Narragansett Indian case that ruled against MichGO's primary challenge - that the Interior secretary doesn't have the authority to take land into trust.
''This is at least the eighth lawsuit MichGO's lost, so we feel that the history of our case speaks for itself and there hasn't been a federal court in the U.S. that has ever agreed with the argument that the Interior secretary doesn't have the authority to take land into trust.''
The casino is expected to open within 12 to 16 months after groundbreaking.