SURPRISE: Judge Tim Fox sprung one today in casino case.

Circuit Judge Tim Fox dashed hopes by parties in court over a casino permit for Pope County that he’d rule today on an argument by a Mississippi casino operator that it had a valid application for a permit for the casino authorized by voters in 2018.

Full briefs had been filed on Gulfside’s contention that its application, with approval from a county judge and Russellville mayor in office at the end of 2018, met the constitutional amendment’s requirements. Others contested that, saying that state law and a Racing Commission rule required approval from current elected officials after the formal application process opened in 2019. The current Pope County Quorum Court and county judge have backed an application by the Cherokee tribe. Additionally, at the deadline for casino applications last week, the Choctaw tribe applied for a permit without approval from any local official.

With parties present to make arguments in court today, Fox surprised everyone by reading from a prepared statement that said he still believed the case should be tried in Pope County. He’d sent it there once and it was promptly returned to Pulaski County by Judge Bill Pearson. Fox said the plaintiff, Gulfside Casino Partnership, could transfer the case or have it put at the bottom of his docket, to be heard when time allows. Gulfside also could seek some intermediate help from the Arkansas Supreme Court. The hearing concluded without any arguments. Fox had set aside a full day for the hearing.

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A 2019 law allowed the transfer of cases involving state agencies from Pulaski County to local courts (the better to get home cooking was the aim of sponsor Sen. Trent Garner), but it does not require such transfers. All the parties in this case wanted it heard in Little Rock, for convenience’s sake, including the attorney general and Racing Commission. None of the parties in this case are in Pope County, though the casino would eventually be built there.

Today, Gulfside issued this brief response following the hearing:

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“We believe the law requires the case to be heard in Pulaski County.”

Fox’s action today almost certainly means more delays in a final Racing Commission decision on the three pending applications. It’s unlikely to move ahead uncertain of the outcome of this court case. And even if it did choose an applicant, that applicant might be reluctant to break ground with the case pending.

Gulfside is pondering further actions. The Racing Commission’s attorney, Byron Freeland, said the Commission likely would wait to see what further action Gulfside plans before deciding what course it will take.