WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from the federal government over Class II gaming devices at the small Santee Sioux Tribe in Northeastern Nebraska.
The Santee have battled the federal authorities for more than eight years over gaming devices and now the tribe can relax because it is not under the scrutiny of the federal courts any longer.
The high court had no comment on its refusal to hear the appellate cases from the 8th and 10th circuits over virtually the same issue.
"It's wonderful, we haven't had time to celebrate," said Thelma Thomas, manager of the Ohiya Casino and tribal council member.
"It means right now we can relax. It means a huge sense of relief. It means that we won and fought a battle that was not fair because it was the USA verses Santee Sioux Tribe and we are just a small tribe with very little resources and we won," Thomas said.
This action allows pull-tab style gaming devices to be classified as Class II machines. The Ohiya Casino, owned by the Santee, has used the pull-tab gaming devices for a few years with the approval of the National Indian Gaming Commission, but federal authorities have asked for a ruling on the devices.
"It's a significant victory for the tribe. This puts an end to the litigation and an end to the issue of whether the department of justice can impose criminal sanctions against the tribe for operating Class II games," said Conley Schulte, tribal attorney.
The tribe no longer has to live in fear the federal government will seize or garnish tribal funds or other sanctions.
"Maybe they will leave us alone so we can get on with living and folks can work. It means employment for the jobless, it means more folks coming off AFDC and welfare, it means hope. It means we have some choices now," Thomas said.
The federal government imposed sanctions that ran so deep against the Santee that federal grants for economic development were refused, even those that were set aside for American Indian tribes.
What the sanctions and pressure did was to stop the Santee from progressing. Many people who worked for the casino or tribal enterprises did not know if they would have a job from week to week. They were not able to borrow money to buy vehicles or other goods, yet they stuck it out with the tribe, Thomas said.
"We are proud of who we are. That was our sovereign, treaty right and the U.S. put all those sanction on us. They even stopped our grant applications for law enforcement, they just halted them," she said.
What the Ohiya Casino uses as gaming devices are pull tab machines that dispense a tab in lieu of money. The machines do not require money to be inserted to operate them. These machines were installed May 15, 2001, and the Department of Justice has sought a ruling on them since that time, although the NIGC has approved this type of gaming device as Class II.
Under Class II gaming the tribe is not required to seek approval from the state. Nebraska has consistently rejected compact negotiations for Class III gaming. The Santee filed suit against the state with the claim that Nebraska did not negotiate in good faith, a requirement of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
On Feb. 2, 1996 the Santee opened the Ohiya Casino in a small remodeled caf? with Class III gaming devices. There were threats of criminal charges against the tribal officials, and closure by the federal authorities followed. Tribal bank accounts were seized, revenues were garnished and the federal court imposed a $6,000 per day fine on the tribe, none of which has been paid.
The refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to not hear the case changes things for the Santee. Schulte said the tribe will negotiate with the U.S. Attorney to abate what the tribe owes. He said the U.S. Attorney, "to his credit promised he would sit down and discuss that with the tribe once the litigation was finally terminated - and that has now occurred, and we intend to take him up on that."
"This gives the tribe an opportunity to get out from underneath these fines that have been hanging over them for the past several years, things are looking up," Schulte said.
Economic development on the Santee reservation has grown slightly over the past years, with the help of other tribes' financial and advisory input.
The tribe has a fuel station, a new restaurant connected to a larger casino and bingo hall, an RV park and will soon have an office park and amphitheater.
"What is unforgivable is the day they charged the tribal council members for contempt and made them go to Omaha. The children cried, they didn't know if those parents were coming back. That's unforgivable in this day and age to use those tactics against tribal members," Thomas said.
This case has nationwide implications. It is a clarification of what constitutes Class II machines of this type and it could apply to other Class II gaming devices as well, Schulte said.
Video bingo games could fall under this ruling. They are in operation in other parts of the country.
"This case was the Department of Justice's one attempt at getting the Supreme Court to reverse these decisions. The Department of Justice put a lot of resources into this; this is an important issue to them," Schulte said.
"We were vindicated yesterday. All the time our tribe stood for our sovereign rights. They made us out to be bad guys, to be criminals. We are just people trying to live in a good way and put people to work.
"I m so proud of our tribe, I am proud to be a Santee Sioux," Thomas said.