The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Texas lacks authority to prevent an Indian tribe from offering bingo games.
The June 15 decision is a win for the Biden administration, which argued against the position taken by Texas.
The case is Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo v. State of Texas, court file 20-493. Oral arguments were heard on Feb. 22.
The decision did not break down along the usual liberal versus conservative ideological lines. Two of the court’s conservative justices supported the ruling while four opposed it.
The majority opinion (pdf) was written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and was joined by conservative Amy Coney Barrett, along with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by three conservative justices–Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh.
The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, sometimes called simply the Pueblo, is one of only three federally recognized Indian tribes and sovereign nations in Texas. The Pueblo was established by the tribal community known as the Tigua in 1682.
While the Pueblo wants to continue offering bingo games at Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in El Paso, Texas sued, arguing only certain charitable organizations may run bingo games, and that because the tribe is subject to the Texas Bingo Enabling Act, its bingo operations are forbidden.
The tribe, in turn, argues that the Texas law violates its sovereignty.
Speaking Rock gives guests a choice of two versions of bingo: the traditional “live call” bingo and electronic bingo machines that resemble slot machines.
The law governing Indian tribes is complex.
The Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Mitchell (1983) that “a general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian people” has long existed. That the federal government has a duty to honor its treaty commitments is called the doctrine of trust responsibility.
Congress extinguished the trust responsibility between the tribe and the U.S. government in the 1960s. After years of negotiation, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act of 1987 restored the trust responsibility, along with the tribe’s sovereign status and lands, but prevented the tribe from opening gaming establishments.
In 1988, Congress approved the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which secured tribes’ right to offer certain gaming activities on sovereign land if those activities are otherwise legal in their state.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit sided with Texas, holding that bingo games at Speaking Rock were governed by the 1987 law and, therefore, unlawful. IGRA lets tribes run bingo games under the Class II gaming category. Class III gaming, such as table games and slot machines, can’t be offered unless the tribal and state governments enter into a compact.
In the majority opinion, Gorsuch wrote that Texas was wrong.
“Native American Tribes possess ‘inherent sovereign authority over their members and territories,’” the justice wrote, citing precedent.
“Under our Constitution, treaties, and laws, Congress too bears vital responsibilities in the field of tribal affairs. From time to time, Congress has exercised its authority to allow state law to apply on tribal lands where it otherwise would not. In this case, Texas contends that Congress expressly ordained that all of its gaming laws should be treated as surrogate federal law enforceable on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Reservation. In the end, however, we find no evidence Congress endowed state law with anything like the power Texas claims.”
Texas argued that by passing the Restoration Act, Congress “has allowed all of its state gaming laws to act as surrogate federal law on tribal lands.” The 5th Circuit took the same view in this and another case but its “understanding of the law is mistaken.”
“The Restoration Act bans as a matter of federal law on tribal lands only those gaming activities also banned in Texas. To allow the Fifth Circuit to revise its precedent and reconsider this case in the correct light, its judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Gorsuch wrote.
In his dissent, Roberts wrote that the Pueblo tribe was wrong.
In order to secure federal trust status, the tribe agreed that the gambling laws of Texas should apply on its reservation and “Congress passed a bill codifying this arrangement.”
“The question presented in this case is whether all of Texas’s gaming laws apply on tribal land, or only those laws that categorically ban a particular game,” Roberts wrote.
“The Court’s contrary interpretation is at odds with the statute’s plain meaning, conflicts with an unambiguous tribal resolution that the Act was ‘enacted in accordance with,’ … and makes a hash of the statute’s structure. The Court’s approach also winds up treating gambling violations more leniently than other violations of Texas law. This makes little sense, as the whole point of the provision at issue was to further restrict gaming on the Tribe’s lands.”
Ricky Sylestine, who chairs the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ Tribal Council, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision as “an affirmation of Tribal sovereignty and a victory for the Texas economy.”
“The highest Court in the land has made clear that our Tribe has the right to legally operate electronic bingo on our reservation, just as we have the past six years,” he told the Texas Tribune.