Major Setback for $1 Billion Taunton Casino Project as Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Loses Court Appeal

The future of the planned tribal casino in Taunton, Massachusetts remains uncertain following a court decision on Thursday. A three-judge panel rejected a crucial appeal by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which sought to protect its perceived right to hold 321 acres of land into trust for reservation.

The proposed casino project in Taunton has been the subject of fiery debates and multiple legal battles in the past few years. With the latest ruling, the Mashpee Wampanoag lost a key appeal that aimed at overturning a 2016 decision from a lower court. Back then, Judge William G. Young ruled that the tribe did not qualify for land-in-trust status. Despite that, the Mashpee started construction on the $1 billion gaming property, initially called First Light Resort and Casino.

The Mashpee Wampanoag is one of two federally recognized tribes of Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. The tribe, which is headquartered in Mashpee on Cape Cod, received federal recognition in 2007 but did not hold any reservation land until 2015.

Then, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, approved the application of the tribe and allowed taking 321 acres of land into federal trust for the initial reservation for the Mashpee Wampanoag. This included two parcels, one in Mashpee, and the other in Taunton. This would allow the tribe to operate a casino within its land.

In 2016, however, the Department of the Interior decision was challenged in court by a group of property owners in Taunton on the grounds that the government could not take land into trust for tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. U.S. District Judge William Young ruled that the federal government had improperly allowed the Mashpee to hold land in trust.

Tribal representatives filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which was heard on February 5. The three-judge panel, releasing its decision on Thursday, supported the view that the Mashpee Wampanoag could not be defined as “Indian” under the second definition featured by the federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. However, the tribe has another option is now looking at the United States Congress to take action.

The Mashpee Wampanoag to Continue Fight for Indian Reservation

Along with the appeal, which was rejected this week, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe had started a separate action, still pending in Washington, D.C. The tribe filed a suit against the Interior Department in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in which it challenges the Department’s reversal of its land-in-trust deal approval.

In a Thursday statement, tribal spokesman Steven Peters pointed out that the decision may be a setback for the casino plans but it had “no impact” on the tribe’s pending litigation in Washington, D.C. The tribal land would not be taken out of trust, he added, and the Mashpee Wampanoag would continue its fight and protect its land.

Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Cedric Cromwell said that the ruling was “a grave injustice” to the tribe. The Mashpee has asked Congress to take action but it is still unclear whether their plea will have any effect. There is also uncertainty around the future of the gambling industry in the state as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has yet to decide on the fourth and final casino license, which will be issued for a gaming establishment in Southeastern Massachusetts.

In 2016, Mass Gaming and Entertainment applied for a casino license in Brockton but was not approved by the regulator. The same company financed the litigation against the tribal casino and now that the land-in-trust deal is revoked, the firm is hoping its plans for a commercial casino to be approved.