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Judge denies anti-casino group’s motion to close Seneca casino

SENECA NATION, CATTARUGUS TERRITORY – The Seneca Nation won another major victory – the second in two weeks – in its long-running battle with an anti-casino group over the nation’s Buffalo casino.

On Jan. 30, U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny refused the latest request from Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County to order an immediate shutdown of the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

Instead, Skretny recognized National Indian Gaming Commission Chairman Phil Hogen’s Jan. 20 decision approving the nation’s amended Class III gaming ordinance for the casino. The judge said NIGC’s approval of the gaming ordinance does not conflict with his own earlier rulings in the case that had deemed the casino operation illegal.

“Upon review, it appears that the chairman’s recent approval of Class III gaming on SNI’s Buffalo parcel is not based on a reaffirmance of positions or conclusions previously rejected by the court. Rather, it is predicated on an analysis different from any previously put in issue by the parties,” Skretny wrote in the ruling.

Hogen’s decision confirmed the tribe’s restricted fee lands in downtown Buffalo where the casino is located are eligible for gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder Sr. welcomed the judge’s decision. “We are pleased with today’s federal court decision as it reinforces the Nation’s interpretation that the NIGC ordinance amendments earlier this month place this case in a whole new realm of consideration, as the judge has now affirmed.”

The NIGC approved the nation’s amended ordinance last summer based on new Interior Department regulations that clarify the ways gaming can be conducted under IGRA on land acquired by a tribe after Oct. 17, 1988.

The titles to trust lands are held in the name of the United States, which holds the lands “in trust” for tribes or individual Indians. The Seneca Nation holds title to its own lands and the title is “restricted,” meaning that Congress must approve any transfer of rights and interests in those lands to third parties for the transfer to be valid.

The new regulations note Congress’ distinction between trust lands and restricted fee lands for gaming purposes, and clarify that gaming is permitted on restricted fee land without the need for any specific regulatory approval beyond what the nation had already secured.

“This new analysis is presumed valid unless and until it becomes the subject of a successful legal challenge,” Skretny wrote. Therefore, NIGC’s Jan. 20 ruling renders moot CACGEC’s request to shut the casino down based on an earlier court decision that said the casino was illegal.

Casino foes vowed to fight the court ruling. “We understand Judge Skretny’s concern that this latest ordinance was not technically before him in the current lawsuit, and therefore, a new legal challenge is required,” CACGEC’s attorney Neil D. Murray told Buffalo News. “Our clients have every intention of bringing that challenge as soon as the proper legal papers are assembled. This time we are confident that we can obtain a definitive final ruling.”

The Buffalo Creek Casino is currently housed in a temporary building; plans are in place for a permanent building and expansion expected to cost $333 million.

“What Judge Skretny ruled today (Jan. 30) fundamentally changes the parameters of this case against our casino in downtown Buffalo and the revenue and jobs it will provide,” Snyder said. “He endorsed that the rules under which it now operates are new and unrelated to any of his previous decisions that said it shouldn’t operate. This is a significant recasting of this debate in favor of the NIGC and the Seneca Nation, yet is also in keeping with what we have said and how we have acted all along.”