Arkansas court upholds judge’s ruling voiding Cherokee Nation’s license to build casino

(Arkansas Supreme Court)

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a judge’s decision to void the casino license issued to the Cherokee Nation by a panel, setting up a new round of applications for the last of four casinos voters have approved.

In a 5-2 ruling, justices agreed with a Pulaski County judge who struck down the license issued in 2021 to Cherokee Nation Businesses, and Legends Resort and Casino — the company set up by the Cherokee Nation — to build a casino in Pope County.

Pope County was one of four sites where casinos were allowed to be built under a constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2018. Casinos have already been set up in the other three locations, but the Pope County license has been tied up in ongoing legal battles.

Justices ruled that the 2018 amendment did not give the commission authority to issue a license jointly to Legends and Cherokee Nation Businesses.

“Nowhere in the text does it allow for joint or dual licensing to more than one applicant,” the court ruled.

The state said it was reviewing the decision and preparing for a new round of applications.

“(The Department of Finance and Administration) will be working with the Arkansas Racing Commission to open a new application window in a timely manner,” Trent Minner, administrator of DFA’s Regulatory Division, which includes the Arkansas Racing Commission, said in a statement. “We will work with the commission to ensure all legal requirements of Amendment 100 are fulfilled and that the process is carried out in compliance with Arkansas law.”

Cherokee Nation Businesses, which had already purchased more than 325 acres (hectares) for the casino project, said it was disappointed in the decision and said it remained committed to becoming the casino operator.

“We are fully committed to moving forward and working with local and state officials as we have been for the past five years to build Legends Resort & Casino and bring the much-needed economic growth the community and state deserves,” Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in a statement.

Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership, a competing applicant, had filed the lawsuit challenging the license.

Gulfside had been issued a license for the casino in 2020, but that license was voided after the state Supreme Court said it needed to have the endorsement of current elected officials in the area. The Gulfside application had been submitted with the backing of Pope County’s former judge.

“Just as the Racing Commission selected our superior application in 2020 in a head-to-head with Legends, we look forward to demonstrating again to county leaders and residents how our proposed world-class resort will benefit them and the entire state,” Casey Castleberry, attorney for Gulfside Casino Partnership, said in a statement.