A judge refused Wednesday to order the federal government to accept into trust the Park City land where the Wyandotte Nation wants to build a casino near Wichita.
The ruling means it will be up to the Interior Department to decide the issue – under the watchful eye of the court.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson said she would retain jurisdiction until the department issues a final ruling on the Wyandotte Nation’s request. She ordered the interior secretary to provide quarterly reports to the court on the processing of the tribe’s application, with the first report due in 90 days.
Billy Friend, chief of the Wyandotte Nation, said he had expected the decision, and called it “somewhat of a victory for us.”
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The tribe’s lawsuit against the Interior Department, which was the subject of Robinson’s decision, was not about forcing the judge to take to the land into trust, he said, but about forcing the Interior Department to make a decision on the tribe’s land-into-trust application. The tribe filed it in Oklahoma in 2006, and it has been pending in Washington, D.C. since 2009.
Robinson’s decision provides oversight on the process, he said.
“We were hoping the judge would issue an order giving them a timeline. That’s why we filed this suit in the beginning,” Friend said. “I think the judge is as frustrated with the Interior Department as we are.”
The dispute centers on 10.5 acres of land near Park City that the tribe bought in 1992. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows tribes to conduct gambling only on Indian lands, which are defined as land within its reservation or held in trust by the United States.
Wyandotte Nation, formerly known as the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma, contended in its lawsuit that after it received federal recognition in 1978, it needed to reacquire lands lost as a result of “failed federal policies.” The Wyandotte Nation contends it bought the Park City land using money Congress set aside to buy property to put into trust for the tribe’s benefit. The tribe argued the Interior Department therefore had a “mandatory duty” to take the land into trust.
But Robinson disagreed that the tribe had proved that point, noting an audit finding which showed those trust funds didn’t contain enough money for the tribe to have purchased both the Park City land and another tract where it opened a gambling hall in downtown Kansas City, Kan. She said a determination on the factual question of whether the tribe purchased the land falls outside her authority.
The court agreed with the interior secretary’s decision to reassess its review of the tribe’s application.
The judge also found that the interior secretary’s actions do not constitute unreasonable delay, precluding any finding of malfeasance.
Robinson’s decision retained only jurisdiction on the tribe’s claim of unreasonable delay raised in the lawsuit, and her demand for the quarterly progress reports is meant to ensure that the Interior Department processes the tribe’s application in a timely fashion.
Friend said the tribe will meet with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. on April 22 to discuss the application.
“We hope they give us an idea of when they‘re going to make a decision,” he said. “We feel the decision ought to be imminent. It’s been five years.”
Friend said the Interior Department in the past had determined that the application is mandatory. It had approved the application and had it ready to be signed on two occasions, only to have the state of Kansas and lobbyists for Peninsula Gaming and Boyd Gaming, managers of the state-owned Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, intervene to delay the process, he said.
The most recent list of pending gaming applications, released in March, includes the Wyandotte’s as the only mandatory application, he said.
Friend said he is optimistic that the tribe will be able to build a casino in Park City some day.
“We still think it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said.