Judge revokes Cherokees’ Pope County casino license; fight at Arkansas Supreme Court looms

Cherokee Nation files notice of appeal to Supreme Court

By: - January 13, 2023 11:42 am

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

This article was updated Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, at 5:40 p.m.

A judge has stripped Legends Resort and Casino and Cherokee Nation Businesses of the license to operate a casino in Pope County.

The long-awaited ruling will be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which will again decide the fate of Arkansas’ fourth and, for now, final casino.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox sided with arguments from a Legends competitor, Gulfside Casino Partnership, that Legends’ corporate structure meant that it did not have prior experience operating a casino and was not qualified to hold the Pope County license.

The Cherokees argued that Cherokee Nation Businesses, which does have experience running casinos, is the sole member of Legends Resort and Casino LLC. The Arkansas Racing Commission issued the license jointly to CNB and Legends.

“CNB and Legends are two separate legal entities,” Fox wrote in the ruling, dated Thursday. “The fact that CNB may be one of the members of Legends, or even the only member of Legends, does not alter the legal status that CNB and Legends are distinct and separate legal entities.”

Fox also said that CNB was not even an applicant when it received a license because its earlier application had been rejected by the Racing Commission.

“The Pope County casino license issued jointly to Legends and CNB on November 12, 2021, is declared a nullity and is void and of no effect.”

 

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While certainly a blow to the Cherokees, CNB and other case parties had been eagerly awaiting a ruling for nearly a year, knowing any decision would be appealed.

“While the circuit court’s ruling is disappointing, in the interest of forward progress, we are pleased to have a decision,” said Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses. “We remain confident in our legal position and will move quickly to have our appeal heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court.”

The Cherokees on Friday filed a notice of appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court

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The four-year saga over the Pope County casino license has been as litigious as it is slow.

After Arkansans legalized up to four casinos through a 2018 ballot initiative, the Arkansas Racing Commission opened the application period in 2019. It first declined to award the license to any applicant, but in 2020, it gave Gulfside the Pope County license.

However, 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.

Legends purchased land for the casino, but progress on the $225 million project has been stalled due to the legal delays.

Gulfside attorney Lucas Rowan praised the decision on Friday.

“Gulfside remains committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to Arkansas, and this ruling that Legends was not qualified is a step in that direction,” he said.

Fox also offered sharp critiques of the Racing Commission in his ruling, taking issue with several of its administrative procedures and decisions.

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which houses the Racing Commission, said the commission may wait on the Supreme Court to take any further action.

Since casinos were legalized through Amendment 100 in 2018, gambling facilities have opened at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Southland in West Memphis and Saracen in Pine Bluff.

“The state’s casino industry is seeing record numbers in sports betting as a result of the mobile betting option,” Hardin said. “Players wagered $30.5 million in November, a new monthly record. We expect new records as Arkansans have the option to bet the Super Bowl and March Madness via mobile device for the first time.”

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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. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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