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The state's challenge of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe's plans to build a gambling facility on the western tip of Martha's Vineyard belongs in federal court, not state court, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge F. Dennis Saylor concluded in his ruling that there is a "strong federal interest" in the dispute between the federally-recognized tribe and the state because a central question in the case will be whether the state or the tribe has jurisdiction over gambling in the Martha's Vineyard tribal land.
"It is clear that the resolution of this case requires a resolution of a substantial question of federal law," wrote Saylor, who also set an Aug. 6 court date for an initial scheduling conference.
Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, said in statement the tribe was pleased with the judge's decision.
"We now have all of the federal approvals required to proceed with gaming on our existing trust lands, and we are confident, in light of this decision, that the federal court will confirm Aquinnah's sovereign and federal statutory rights to do so," she said.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, which is representing the state in the case, deferred to Gov. Deval Patrick's office, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The state sued the tribe in in December 2013 after the Aquinnah Wampanoag openly discussed plans to convert an unfinished tribal community center into a gambling facility housing high stakes electronic "bingo" machines and poker tables.
Within weeks, the tribe requested the case be moved from state supreme court to U.S. District Court for Massachusetts. Judge Saylor heard arguments earlier this year on the request but declined to immediately issue a decision.
In its suit, the state charges the tribe with breach of contract. Specifically, it argues that the tribe is violating a 1983 settlement agreement in which it had effectively forfeited its right to tribal gaming.
The agreement, which was signed by state, local and tribal authorities and subsequently approved by the federal government , conveyed roughly 400 acres on Martha's Vineyard to the tribe with the understanding that the state's jurisdiction would never be "impaired or otherwise altered" and the tribe would not "exercise sovereign jurisdiction" over the lands.
But with the state opening its doors to private casino and slot parlor developments in 2011, the tribe began looking into opening its own gambling facility.
In November 2013, the tribe released a legal analysis from the National Indian Gaming Commission's acting general counsel concluding the tribe had the right to operate a gaming facility on its tribal land - regardless of whether it had a state-approval.