BRENDA BLAGG: Dice rolls set in long-running Pope County casino license fight


Members of the Arkansas Supreme Court have pulled out their dictionaries to resolve a long-standing controversial dispute over Pope County’s only casino license.

The court, or rather a four-member majority of the judges, relied on a few definitions to overturn a lower court’s ruling last week.

One definition was for article “the” and the other for the word “applicant”, as referenced in the constitutional amendment that sparked all this controversy.

Voters in Arkansas approved Amendment 100 in November 2018, allowing the Arkansas Racing Commission to issue a casino license for Pope County, one of only four allowed in the state .

As existing casinos in Hot Springs and West Memphis were expanded and a new casino built in Jefferson County, Pope County’s proposals have long been put on hold in litigation.

There were other contenders, but the two that were still in the mix last week are Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi company, and Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Gulfside had prevailed before Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox, but Cherokee Nation Businesses won on appeal in the Arkansas Supreme Court.

There is still room for more legal wrangling in the case. There is even a petition to remove Pope County completely from Amendment 100. This would require another statewide vote for a constitutional change and mainly serves to illustrate the strong division of thought between anti factions. -casino and pro-casino in Pope County.

Nonetheless, it appears that at least one key issue has been resolved through litigation.

Judge Fox had declared unconstitutional an Arkansas Racing Commission rule and state law requiring letters of approval for casino licenses to come from local officials on duty at the time the license application is made. submitted. The rule and the law reflecting it were adopted after the adoption of amendment 100.

Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker, writing for the majority, said that in the plain language of Amendment 100, saying “the” county judge means the county judge in office at the time. where the “casino candidate” submitted his request to the commission.

Baker was joined in majority by Justices Shawn Womack, Rhonda Wood and Special Judge Jim Spears. Justices Courtney Hudson and Barbara Webb dissented while Chief Justice Dan Kemp did not participate.

This issue became an issue, of course, as Gulfside gained approval in December 2018 from the outgoing county judge and mayor, both of whom were not in office the following May when the Racing Commission formally opened the race. window for casino license applications.

Gulfside has argued throughout the litigation that the endorsements of the former county judge and mayor were sufficient and that Gulfside should be granted the license.

In the opinion, Judge Baker explained that Gulfside could not have become a casino plaintiff until May 2018, when “the” county judge, with respect to the amendment, was the current judge, and not a former or retired county judge.

The Arkansas Racing Commission has so far not licensed any casinos in Pope County and it’s unclear when exactly they might.

Officials last week awaited the formal Supreme Court mandate and were discussing with the state attorney general, who represents the commission, how and when to proceed.

For its part, Cherokee Nation Businesses is apparently poised to move on to construction, although it initially hands a check for $ 38.8 million to the current Pope County Judge for County Economic Development.

The negotiated payment is a sweetener. Cherokee Nation Businesses will pay for the approval the company received for its Pope County Judge’s casino complex development project.

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