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Idaho sues CdA tribe over poker at casino

UPDATED: Fri., May 2, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

BOISE – The state of Idaho sued the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in U.S. District Court on Friday as the tribe launched new poker games at the Coeur d’Alene Casino in Worley.

Poker is illegal in Idaho, according to the lawsuit filed by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, and offering it at the tribal casino violates the tribe’s gaming compact with the state.

But tribal officials maintain the type of poker tournament play they’re offering is legal, and already takes place elsewhere in the state. “If others are able to offer poker, why shouldn’t we?” asked Tribal Chairman Chief J. Allan.

He said the state’s objections appear to stem from “a misunderstanding of both the games that the Tribe plans to offer and the Tribe’s federal rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

State and tribal officials have been going back and forth over the issue for the past few weeks, but when the announced opening date for the poker room arrived without a resolution, the state sued, taking the tribe by surprise. “We found out from your blog,” tribal legislative liaison Helo Hancock told The Spokesman-Review. “It’s frustrating to have to learn in that manner. This lawsuit is completely unnecessary.”

Allan said, “We believe we are well within our right to offer poker. If the state has a problem with our legal analyses, they can invoke dispute resolution under our gaming compact – that’s why we have it – so we can negotiate our differences in a professional setting.”

The tribe had just sent a letter to state Lottery Director Jeff Anderson the same day the state sued, saying it would agree to an expedited dispute-resolution process and binding arbitration and proposing a May 9 meeting. Said Hancock, “It’s frustrating to see the state jump the gun on this.”

But Gov. Butch Otter said, “Article III Section 20 of the Idaho Constitution is clear, and it’s my duty to enforce and defend the Constitution and the laws of Idaho. Despite discussions with tribal leaders and our best efforts at avoiding this situation, we have no choice but to act. I will continue working with the Attorney General to uphold our laws and resolve this issue.”

The casino had announced plans to open its new poker room Friday offering Texas Hold ’Em and Omaha poker at six tables. Tribal officials said those are card games of skill with players competing against each other for stakes and no house bank involved, so they believe they don’t violate the compact.

“There’s obviously a legal disagreement here, and I think it’s something clearly reasonable minds could disagree on,” Hancock said. “We think the state statute has a clear exemption for contests of skill. And anybody who’s ever played poker knows that it’s not just a game of chance – people who are good at poker consistently win at poker.”

He said, “It’s kind of like golf. And certainly there are elements of chance in a lot of things, but this we believe is a contest of skills – courts around the country have been finding that.”

Coeur d’Alene Casino executives have considered offering poker for several years, saying marketing studies indicate the casino south of Coeur d’Alene is losing business to Indian casinos in Washington that offer card games, and to commercial card rooms, which also are allowed in Washington.

In a Thursday letter to Allan, Anderson wrote, “Poker is not an authorized form of gaming” under the compact. He offered to go to arbitration with the tribe on the issue if it would delay the poker room’s opening.

But the games started as promised; the Coeur d’Alene Casino’s poker room is now open daily from 11 a.m. to close. “Our Poker Room is the newest addition to our world class gaming experience, located in the Red Tail Bar and Grill,” the casino says on its website. “Come enjoy live action Poker with a wide betting range to suit your choice of game and experience.”

In court documents, the state’s lawyers wrote, “The compact has existed for over 21 years, and yet the Tribe waited 20 years before ever suggesting that poker was a permissible form of gaming. This newly-discovered gaming entitlement has as its roots not a change in the law but the Tribe’s pursuit of revenue. Idaho does not begrudge the Tribe’s attempting to maximize the Casino’s economic benefit; it does object to any gaming activity that violates the Compact.. … Parties to contracts ought honor their promises and adhere to the law.”

Allan said the tribe is doing no more than others who offer poker tournaments already are in the state. Under federal law, recognized Indian tribes can offer any type of gambling that’s already legal in the state, and can negotiate compacts regarding additional types of gambling. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state signed their gaming compact in 1992; it was amended in 2003, after Idaho voters passed an initiative to legalize gambling machines in reservation casinos.

“We believe that the state’s concerns will be resolved once it understands the limited nature of the poker tournaments to be offered by the Tribe and the legal authority for such tournaments,” Allan said.

Plus, he said the tribe would like to discuss with the Lottery Commission the implications of the passage of legislation this year authorizing betting on slot-machine-like “instant racing” machines at several locations in the state, including the Greyhound Park in Post Falls. Years ago, the tribe sought to operate a casino there, but backed off after then-Gov. Phil Batt objected.

Allan said that legislation will “dramatically expand gaming in Idaho.”

The state’s lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block the poker games; the federal court gave the tribe’s lawyers until May 27 to file their initial responses.


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