In Supreme Court case, Indian tribe asks Texas to leave its bingo games alone

A Native American tribe has urged the Supreme Court to allow it to continue offering bingo games on its land, even if Texas upholds state law prohibiting tribes from running gambling operations.

If the Texas tribe were to win, there could be a ripple effect, spurring more tribe-controlled casinos and gaming operations. Gambling is an industry euphemism for gambling.

The Biden administration has argued that it is unfair that the tribe does not enjoy the same gaming rights as many other tribes across the country.

Oral arguments were heard on February 22 in Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo v. State of Texas, Court File 20-493.

The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, sometimes referred to simply as the Pueblo, is one of only three federally recognized Indian tribes and sovereign nations in Texas. The Pueblo was created by the tribal community known as the Tigua in 1682.

While the Pueblo wants to continue offering bingo games at the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center in El Paso, Texas sued, arguing that only certain charities can hold bingo games, and that because the tribe is subject to Texas Bingo Enabling Act, its bingo operations are prohibited. .

The tribe, in turn, argues that Texas law violates its sovereignty.

Speaking Rock offers customers a choice of two versions of bingo: traditional “live” bingo and electronic bingo machines that look like slot machines.

The law governing Indian tribes is complex.

The Supreme Court ruled in US v. Mitchell (1983) that “a relationship of general trust between the United States and the Indian people” has long existed. The fact that the federal government has a duty to honor its treaty commitments is called the doctrine of fiduciary responsibility.

Congress extinguished the trust liability 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 reinstated the liability of the trust, as well as the tribe’s sovereign status and lands, but prevented the tribe from opening gambling establishments.

In 1988, Congress approved the Indian Gambling Regulation Act (IGRA), which guaranteed the right of tribes to offer certain gambling activities on sovereign lands if such activities are otherwise legal in their state.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit sided with Texas, finding that bingo games at Speaking Rock were governed by the 1987 law and therefore illegal. IGRA allows tribes to hold bingo games in the category of Class II games. Class III games, such as table games and slot machines, can only be offered if the tribal and state governments enter into a pact.

Tribal attorney Brant C. Martin told the Supreme Court that the issue here “is whether the Restoration Act subjects the Pueblo to Texas restrictions of time, place, and manner with respect to games that Texas does not categorically prohibit”.

“It’s not,” Martin said. The Restoration Act “specifically excludes Texas regulatory authority over tribal gambling activities”.

Texas Senior Assistant General Counsel Lanora Pettit said the Pueblo should be pleased with the gains it has made through the Restoration Act.

“In the 1980s, everyone in this case wanted something. The tribe wanted federal recognition and was ready to cede some sovereignty,” she said. “Texas wanted to avoid high-stakes betting, which it viewed as an invitation to organized crime and was willing to cede some of its jurisdiction.”

“Everyone made concessions,” which were incorporated into law. “The tribe has gained recognition and can offer gambling to the same extent as other Texans, but other gambling is prohibited by federal law.”

Now the tribe is “asking to rewrite this legislative bargain,” Pettit said.

Chief Justice John Roberts said electronic bingo machines looked like slot machines to him.

No, replied Martin. “I think the state of Texas thinks it looks like a slot machine,” he said.

“I would say it looks like an electronic bingo machine that has a bingo -” the lawyer said as he was cut off by Roberts.

Followed by audible laughter in the courtroom, the Chief Justice said, “What makes it look like a bingo machine?”

Judge Samuel Alito asked Martin “how is a court going to decide whether these machines, of which I don’t have a very clear picture in my mind, are bingo or not.”

“If it’s not bingo, it’s something else. Let’s say they’re goofy,” Alito said, as more laughter broke out.

“And Texas bans the dingo, so you can’t have them, can you?”

Alito continued, “How is the person who has to decide this going to decide if this thing that isn’t exactly – it’s not the kind of bingo… you expect people to play the church or the Elks. It’s something different. How do you decide if it’s bingo?

Martin replied, “I think you don’t have to decide that.”

“No, we don’t have to, but someone does,” Alito said.

Martin said Texas and federal law have their own definitions of bingo.

Judge Stephen Breyer then intervened. “Can we ask my grandmother? he said, causing even more laughter.

Martin replied, “My own mother asked me about these same issues…but there are experts, in fact, who talk about whether or not something has a random number generator, whether or not the mathematics make it bingo, whether or not. it’s not the evidence of the pattern that makes it bingo. All these elements are taken into account. »

Speaking on behalf of Texas, Pettit said the state constitution prohibits all gambling “unless specifically authorized.” The Bingo Enabling Act permits “low stakes bingo in very limited circumstances”.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett said, “I take it that’s Texas’ position that these electronic machines wouldn’t be considered bingo?”

“Yes, Your Honor, because they are slot machines,” Pettit said.

“They don’t have the competitive aspect of bingo. … You match the numbers and the first person to hit a particular pattern wins. And here you have a card and it’s an instant play that’s drawn against… historic bingo draw[s]and it’s just not bingo.


Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and recognized expert on left-wing activism.