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NC Senate leaders make legal case against Catawba casino

The legal fight about the Catawba Indian Nation’s plans to build a casino resort in North Carolina is escalating.

N.C. Senate leaders sent a letter earlier this month to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington that argues the South Carolina-based tribe’s application to put lands in Cleveland County in a federal trust — the first step toward opening a casino — is unlawful.

President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, Sen. Jim Davis, all Republicans, and Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt are asking the federal government to deny the application, saying it would “set a new and dangerous precedent.”

The tribe announced in September that it filed the application to buy a 16-acre site off Interstate 85 just across the North Carolina state line for a casino, hotel, restaurants and retail shops.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration initially explored the casino project but the Republican later came out in opposition. More than 100 House lawmakers also sent a letter opposing the project.

In its Oct. 18 letter, the Senate leaders make the case that the Catawba tribe isn’t subject to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which governs the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ casino in western North Carolina, because it struck its own separate settlement with the federal government.

Under the settlement, the tribe may only acquire land for trust in South Carolina, the lawmakers argued. And the tribe may only operate a gaming facility on tribal lands.

If it does acquire property in North Carolina, the letter states, it is subject to North Carolina law, which prohibits most forms of gambling.

The tribe’s attorneys agree they aren’t subject to the gaming act — but believe the Catawbas can still operate a casino. They argue that the tribe’s actions are governed by a 1987 Supreme Court decision that allowed gaming on Indian lands consistent with what’s allowed in the rest of the state.

North Carolina itself has a lottery, has tolerated sweepstakes operations despite a ban against the games and permits Class 3 gaming at the Cherokee casino, the tribe’s lawyers argued.

Apodaca, Davis and Nesbitt all represent western North Carolina districts near the Cherokee casino.

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