Long-running lawsuit on Arkansas’ fourth casino license nears conclusion

Former Arkansas AG files complaint against presiding judge in Pope County casino case

By: - January 4, 2023 4:45 pm

A row of slot machines stands at Harrah’s casino in New Orleans. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A judge expects to rule in the coming days on whether Legends Resort and Casino is entitled to open a casino in Pope County.

Both sides promise to appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but a decision at the circuit court level will finally begin to resolve the nearly four-year-old question of who should operate Arkansas’ fourth authorized casino.

The legal quagmire has become even more complicated with the filing of a complaint against the Pulaski County circuit judge presiding over the case by Legends attorney and former state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

While the complaint hasn’t been made public, it reflects the case parties’ long-standing frustrations with the speed and manner in which Judge Timothy Fox has disposed of the case.

In a tense Tuesday hearing, Fox offered several parties the opportunity to request his recusal in light of the complaint, but none did. 

In a statement, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission confirmed the complaint, but offered no details about its contents. 

“The Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission acknowledges that a complaint has been filed against Judge Timothy Fox and the issues contained therein,” the statement said. “An investigation is pending in front of a JDDC Investigation Panel. The judge has full due process rights, and the case will proceed pursuant to the Rules of Procedure of the Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission. No additional public information is available at this time.”

Fox declined a request from the Arkansas Advocate to release the complaint, and McDaniel declined to comment. 

Complaints to the JDDC are typically kept confidential until they’ve been adjudicated.

The casino issue

Arkansans approved Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution in 2018. The amendment legalized casino gambling in Arkansas, but it limited the state to four casinos: two at the existing racetracks at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis as well as one new casino in both Jefferson and Pope counties.

The Quapaw Nation quickly obtained the requisite support from local officials around Pine Bluff and secured a license to build Saracen Casino Resort. 

The Pope County casino license has been more convoluted. 

The Arkansas Racing Commission, following the first application period in 2019, declined to award any of the five applicants a license because none had secured a letter of support from current Pope County officials.

The commission eventually awarded the license to Gulfside Casino Partnership in 2020, but the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Gulfside’s support letter from the previous Pope County judge was invalid because he was not in office at the time of the application. 

That cleared the way for the commission to award the license to Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC/Legends Resort and Casino LLC in November 2021.

But Legends hasn’t been able to build its casino because the license was quickly put on hold after an appeal from Gulfside. 

Gulfside argues that Legends is the entity that applied for a license and does not have the requisite experience operating a gaming facility. 

The Cherokees have countered that Cherokee Nation Businesses, which does have experience running casinos, is the sole member of Legends Resort and Casino LLC. 

Legends — which is tied to the group founded by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late owner of the New York Yankees George Steinbrenner — is a consultant CNB has partnered with, the Cherokees have said.

During a hearing Wednesday, Fox hinted at agreement with Gulfside’s contention that Legends lacked casino gaming experience, despite its ties to Cherokee Nation Businesses.

“There’s a reason we have incorporation laws,” he said.

Fox spent most of Wednesday’s hearing confirming the timeline and some details around the case, saying he wanted to ensure the record was complete for the Supreme Court.

“I’m going to let you all save your arguments for the appellate court,” he said.

Case frustrations

The case in Judge Fox’s court has been unusual from the start. 

He initially transferred the case to Pope County, but a judge there quickly returned it to Pulaski County and Fox. 

At a 2019 hearing, Fox said he still felt the matter should be heard in Pope County, and he told Gulfside that it could transfer the case or he’d put it at the bottom of his docket.

Since early 2022, both the Cherokees and Gulfside have written letters to Fox, saying that the matter is ripe for adjudication and asking him to hold a hearing or rule. And the last substantive pleadings were filed in the case eight months ago. 

Fox told Gulfside, the Cherokees and the Choctaw Nation — another applicant that has intervened in the case — that he had a fairly busy schedule on Thursday and Friday but “this is number one on my list of things.”

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.