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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Federal appeals court rules Spokane Tribe can operate Airway Heights casino

The Spokane Tribe Casino in Airway Heights.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Tribe Casino in Airway Heights. (JESSE TINSLEY)

The Spokane Tribe can continue to operate its casino in Airway Heights, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday, affirming a lower court’s 2019 decision that rejected claims by the Kalispel Tribe and Spokane County that the federal government improperly approved the gaming venue.

The ruling by a three-judge panel in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will likely mark the end of a saga that began in 2015, when former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell approved the Spokane Tribe’s request to build a casino about 2 miles from the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights, on the Spokane Tribe’s historic territory but off both tribes’ reservations.

“The Spokane Tribal Business Council is thrilled with today’s ruling,” the council said in a statement Tuesday. “The ruling recognizes what the Spokane Tribe has always known; the Tribe has a right to conduct gaming on its own ancestral lands.”

The Kalispel Tribe argued Jewell did not have the authority to approve the Spokane Tribe’s casino and that the decision itself was “arbitrary and capricious” because it did not adequately consider the impact the new casino would have on the Kalispel Tribe’s finances.

The Kalispel Tribe argued it would lose more than $30 million in revenue and would not be able to provide services to its members as a result of the new casino, but the Interior Department said even if those projections were correct, the lost revenue “would not prohibit the Kalispel tribal government from providing essential services and facilities to its membership.”

In a statement, Kalispel Tribal Council Vice Chairman Curt Holmes said the tribe was “deeply disappointed, yet not surprised” by the decision, because tribes “have historically faced an upward climb when asking for accountability from the federal government.

“This lawsuit was never an intertribal dispute,” Holmes added. “It was never about any objection to the Spokane Tribe’s ability to operate gaming that would promote tribal economic development and self-governance. This was about the Kalispel Tribe’s duty to its people to stand for what is right and hold the DOI to its trust responsibility.”

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which Congress passed in 1988, requires the Interior Secretary to consider two factors before approving a tribe’s request to build a new casino: whether the establishment “would be in the best interest of the Indian tribe” and whether it “would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.”

The Kalispel Tribe and Spokane County challenged the secretary’s decision on the second part of that test. Writing for the panel, Judge Morgan Christen concurred with the 2019 decision by a U.S. district court judge who concluded that the financial harm to the Kalispel Tribe and concerns raised by the county about the casino’s potential impact on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base did not rise to the level of harming “the surrounding community.”

Both tribes are expanding their casinos, with the Spokane Tribe breaking ground last December on a project that would double its casino’s size.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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