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11th Circuit says Alabama can't close or regulate Poarch Creek casinos; Strange won't appeal


MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that Alabama can't close or regulate casinos run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

The 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals said Alabama did not have a right to bring a lawsuit to try to shut down the tribe's gambling operations. The three-judge panel upheld a lower court's ruling that only the federal government could regulate the operations on tribal land.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said while he disagreed with the decision, that it "provides certainty and guidance to state officials." Strange said his goal was to settle the question of the legality of the tribe's gambling operations.

"The Appeals Court's decision makes it clear that the only way for the State of Alabama to regulate the gambling conducted on the PCI's lands is to enter into a compact with the PCI. That is a decision for the Governor and Legislature, not me."

The attorney general said he would not try to appeal the ruling.

The tribe has three casinos — in Atmore, Wetumpka and Amore— with electronic bingo machines. The games with spinning displays and chiming sound effects closely resemble slot machines.

Alabama had filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the casino operations as a public nuisance. The state argued that the machines are not bingo, but slot machines, which under federal Indian gaming regulation framework, are only allowed through an agreement with the state officials.

The 11th Circuit said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act leaves enforcement up to the federal government and does not give the state a mechanism to take the tribe to court. The National Indian Gaming Commission has upheld the tribe's casino operations.

"We conclude that PCI is entitled to sovereign immunity as to all of Alabama's claims," federal judges wrote.

The ruling ends a long-running legal war between the tribe and state over the slot machine-lookalikes.

Alabama filed the lawsuit in 2013 at the same time it moved to shut down bingo operation at a dog track. The complaint against the tribe was dismissed by a federal judge. The 11th Circuit heard the state's appeal in January.

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