Circuit Judge rejects Catawba Indian Nation's request for casino in York County, South Carolina

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe on Tuesday lost its latest quest to build a casino on its York County reservation.

The Catawba Indian Nation sued South Carolina and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel in January, saying a 1993 settlement with the state and U.S. governments allows the reservation to have gambling. They also said a decision by the state Supreme Court determined the tribe can have the same types of games that are permitted in other areas of South Carolina.

The tribe said the state passed a law in 2005 allowing gambling cruises to leave from the state’s ports, so South Carolina should allow the Catawbas to offer the same games at a new gambling hall near Rock Hill. Tribe attorney Billy Wilkins has said previous rulings allowed the courts to consider claims by the Catawbas and other Native Americans more liberally than other citizens, arguing that the settlement already treats tribe members differently than other people in the state in areas like hunting laws and taxes.

But the state said the same law specifies that gambling can’t begin on the boats until they reach international waters and specifically prohibits any casino-like gambling in areas controlled by South Carolina.

In ruling against the Catawbas, Circuit Judge Ernest Kinard said the tribe gave up its right to gamble voluntarily in its 1993 settlement.

“The tribe bargained away its sovereignty for purposes of gaming rights, and thus its gaming rights and those of other citizens are the same under state law,” Kinard wrote. “The tribe has no current right to video gaming on its reservation.”

Chief William Harris said it was a disappointment not only to the tribe but also to people living near the reservation who could have come there to gamble.

“We plan to appeal this ruling and continue our quest for justice,” Harris said. “Our faith remains strong that one day soon justice will prevail.”

The Catawbas said their gambling hall would be a critical component to their reservation in Rock Hill. An economic study posted with their lawsuit said the casino and two hotels to be built nearby would yield more than 4,000 jobs, bring in $259 million in annual revenue and pay nearly $110 million to the state through gaming fees and taxes.

In the lawsuit, Harris pointed out that the per capita income for the tribe’s 2,600 members is $11,000 a year and that unemployment on the Catawba reservation is double the state average.

In York County overall, unemployment was 10.8 percent in March. That’s compared to a statewide rate of 8.9 percent.

Kinard heard arguments over the dispute earlier this month but delayed ruling so he could review the hundreds of pages of legal documents filed in the case.


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