The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a decision by Circuit Judge Tim Fox and sided with the Cherokee Nation in a lawsuit over a permit for a planned casino. If you were betting the Cherokee group will eventually building the casino, the odds just tilted in your favor.

Arkansas voters cleared the way for legalized gambling in Pope County with a 2018 constitutional amendment. Since then, the Cherokee Nation and Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi have vied for the permit, filing multiple legal actions.

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Former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson wrote a letter of support for the Gulfside Casino project 10 days before his term expired at the end of 2018. That support came before Gulfside submitted its bid to the Arkansas Racing Commission, which later denied it because of the timing of the endorsement. But Judge Fox said rules cited by the racing commission were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Pope County Judge Ben Cross wrote a letter in support of Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Karen Baker concluded, “[T]he plain language of Amendment 100, passed by the people of Arkansas stating “the county judge” means the county judge in office at the time the “casino applicant” submitted its application to the [Arkansas Racing Commission.]”

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Justices Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack, along with Special Justice Jim Spears concurred with Baker. Justices Courtney Hudson and Barbara Webb dissented. Chief Justice Dan Kemp didn’t participate.

The Cherokee Nation has promised a $225 million resort and casino.

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Casey Castleberry, counsel for Gulfside Casino Partnership, said in a statement,  “We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, but this isn’t the end of the road. We remain committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to the state.”

County Judge Cross released the following statement:

“The decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding the validity and structure of Amendment 100 is a welcome one. The ruling begins to put some finality into what has beleaguered Pope County for three years now. While Pope County emphatically voted down Amendment 100, nevertheless, the statewide constitutional amendment passed into law and bound the office of County Judge to certain constitutional requirements, regardless of personal sentiment.”

“To that end, I was charged with selecting the best vendor to operate a casino-based resort in our county. Out of the six potential vendors who expressed interest, one clear choice came to light, Cherokee Nation Businesses. CNB brought forth an Economic Development proposal, which was further solidified into an Economic Development Agreement, that includes significant financial support and infrastructure investment not seen in Pope County since the construction of Arkansas Nuclear One.”

“Chief among that agreement, is the establishment of a two million dollar a year non-profit organization to benefit only Pope County causes; the construction of a Convention Center for the city of Russellville at no taxpayer expense, and the provision of a one-time payment of the annual operating budgets of the five smaller incorporated cities in the county, who otherwise will not reap any additional tax revenue afforded by Amendment 100. In addition to these stipulations, area schools, rural fire departments, and community and economic development organizations will see financial impact not afforded by any other potential vendor.”

“I look forward to the Arkansas Racing Commission acting without prolonged delay to address the Supreme Court ruling, and finalize a situation for which Pope County has had such a limited voice throughout the course of litigation.”

Update, more statements:

  • Dustin McDaniel, Legal Counsel for Cherokee Nation Businesses:

    • “Today’s ruling is exciting and greatly appreciated. I know CNB is ready to put an end to litigation and start building. We anticipate CNB’s license will be issued as soon as the mandate is effective, and we will work quickly to bring final resolution to any remaining lawsuits. Once the last legal hurdles are cleared, CNB will deliver the $38.8 million check committed in the Economic Development Agreement with Pope County and commence construction.”
  • Chuck Garrett, CEO, Cherokee Nation Businesses:

    • “CNB appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision on this important matter. We want to thank Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the community at large for their faith and unwavering support. Our team is extremely excited to deliver the world-class Legends Resort & Casino and bring jobs and economic growth to the River Valley. We also look forward to delivering on the $38.8M Economic Development Agreement executed with Pope County, which will allow communities to invest in police, fire and other infrastructure projects while the casino resort is under construction. It is our sincere promise to replicate the success we have achieved in other markets by working cooperatively with state and local officials to make our project a success on day one.”