Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas’ highest court on Thursday declined to rehear an appeal in the case that stripped Cherokee Nation Businesses of the state’s fourth and final casino license.

The Supreme Court’s rejection clears the way for the Arkansas Racing Commission to act, but how the regulator will proceed remains a mystery, and interested parties disagree on the proper path forward.

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What seems clear is that the commission will open some sort of application period and that the Cherokees remain the only entity with the required letter of support from Pope County elected officials.

“The next step will be for the Racing Commission to meet to receive input from the AG’s Office and DFA in order to determine a course of action,” said Trent Minner, administrator of the Department of Finance and Administration Regulatory Division, which includes the Racing Commission.

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With a pair of dissents, the Supreme Court in November upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Racing Commission improperly awarded the Pope County license to Legends Resort and Casino and Cherokee Nation Businesses in 2021.

The lower court had held that the license could not be issued to two separate entities, even if they were related.

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The Supreme Court also took issue with the way the Racing Commission accepted the Cherokees’ application.

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

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

The Supreme Court’s November ruling was silent on the portion of Fox’s ruling related to past casino experience.

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

After Arkansans legalized up to four casinos through a 2018 ballot initiative, the Arkansas Racing Commission opened the application period in 2019. The first three licenses were issued without controversy to the existing racetracks (Southland in West Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs) and to the Quapaw Nation, which opened Saracen Casino in Pine Bluff with support of local officials.

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The commission at first declined to award the Pope County license to any applicant, but in 2020, it gave Gulfside the 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.

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Pope County Judge Ben Cross issued a new letter of support for the Cherokees shortly after the Supreme Court’s November decision and urged the Racing Commission to quickly resolve the matter.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.