April 29, 2020

On March 24, The Cayuga Nation vindicated its sovereign right to game under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)when a New York federal judge ruled that IGRA blocked the Village of Union Springs from enforcing its anti-gaming ordinance against the tribe.

IGRA recognizes Indian nations’ right to conduct “Class II” gaming—consisting of bingo and the like—on “Indian lands within such tribe’s jurisdiction.”  For years, the Cayuga Nation has conducted gaming at Lakeside Entertainment, which sits within the Nation’s reservation recognized by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and is regulated by the National Indian Gaming Commission.  The Village of Union Springs, however, claimed that its 1958 “Games of Chance” ordinance made this gaming illegal, and it contended that the Nation was required to seek permission to game via the Village’s zoning process.  The Village threatened to shut down Lakeside Entertainment, on which a substantial share of the Nation’s revenues depend.  To forestall this existential threat, in 2014 the Nation and its officials brought suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York, seeking to enjoin the Village’s threatened actions as preempted by IGRA and barred by the Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit.

Judge Hurd agreed with the Nation and issued an injunction.  Principally, the Village argued that it could enforce its laws notwithstanding IGRA because the Nation did not have “Indian lands” or “jurisdiction.”  That was so, the Village claimed, because the Supreme Court’s decision in Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. v. City of Sherrill, N.Y., 337 F.3d 139 (2d Cir. 2003) places some limits on the Nation’s right to exercise plenary sovereignty on lands it owns in fee simple within its reservation; instead, the Village said, the Nation could lawfully game only if the federal government took land into trust for the Nation.  Judge Hurd, however, held that to have “jurisdiction,” the Nation need not have exclusive jurisdiction; rather, it need only have “some jurisdictional authority over the land,” which may be “concurrent jurisdiction with state and local authorities.”  Judge Hurd found “no reasonable dispute that the Nation exercises” such jurisdiction, pointing to the “Cayuga Nation Police Force” and “court system,” as well as its activities in “own[ing] and manag[ing] … housing units for … citizens,” “provid[ing] scholarships,” and “arrang[ing] health care,” among others.  And because it was undisputed that the Nation’s “reservation … has never been disestablished,” Judge Hurd found that “IGRA’s broad preemptive effect means that Union Springs cannot rely on local laws and ordinances to regulate the Tribe's Class II gaming activity at Lakeside Entertainment.” 

Judge Hurd also held, in the alternative, that the Nation’s tribal immunity from suit barred attempts to enforce the Village’s laws against the Nation and its officials, rejecting the Village’s argument that its enforcement actions could proceed based on an “immovable property exception” from tribal sovereign immunity proposed (in dissent) by Justice Thomas in Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren, 138 S. Ct. 1649 (2018).

Jenner & Block Partners David W. DeBruin and Zachary C. Schauf led the firm team to victory, with significant contributions from Partner Matthew E. Price and Associates Allison M. Tjemsland, David Manners-Webber, and Leonard R. Powell; Paralegal Cheryl Olson; and former partner Josh Segal.