BRENDA BLAGG: Don't bet on a quick resolution to Pope County casino court cases

Wednesday 8th January 2020

A long-awaited decision from the Arkansas Racing Commission on a casino license for Pope County will take a while longer.

The matter, the subject of sustained controversy for months now, is tied up in court, or several courts.

The commission had planned to meet Monday but canceled late Friday after a Pulaski County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the commission from issuing a Pope County license.

The order came in lawsuit filed Dec. 27 by the anti-casino group, Citizens for a Better Pope County, which seeks a permanent injunction against the state regulators. The temporary injunction is for just 14 days.

The Racing Commission had geared up once again to hear applicants for the last casino permit it can grant in Arkansas.

Permits have already been granted for new or expanded casinos in Jefferson, Crittenden and Garland counties, thanks to passage in 2018 of Amendment 100 to the state Constitution.

Those permits won easy approval. But Pope County, the only other county allowed to host a casino, has been awash in controversy that began even before the state adopted licensing rules, much less accepted applications.

Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi developer, secured letters of support in late 2018 from the lame-duck Pope County judge and the lame-duck mayor of Russellville.

To this day, Gulfside maintains that the letters met a constitutional requirement for local endorsement of the company's application, which was submitted along with four others after the commission finally adopted rules and opened a first application period.

Importantly, those rules included the requirement that local endorsement letters come from officials in office at the time of an application. The state Legislature also put the requirement into state law this year.

None of the original applicants had endorsements from current officials. All were rejected in June.

In August, Gulfside sued the Racing Commission, claiming it did submit the only valid application.

Nonetheless, the commission later opened a second permit application period. The canceled meeting this week was for commissioners to consider whether to grant the permit to another applicant or wait for pending lawsuits, including Gulfside's, to be resolved.

Litigation has come against a political backdrop that saw Pope County voters reject the proposed constitutional amendment that became Amendment 100 in 2018 and pass an initiated local ordinance requiring a public vote before local officials could endorse a casino.

That strong anti-casino stance was followed by the emergence of a pro-casino group that eventually prevailed in persuading the current county judge and a majority of the Pope County Quorum Court to repeal the county ordinance requiring an election and to endorse Cherokee Nation Businesses' bid for the casino license. The mayor of Dover, where the casino could be built, has also endorsed the application.

The shift in sentiment came amid intense competition among potential operators to woo Pope County decision-makers.

This week, Cherokee Nation Businesses and Choctaw Nation were ready again with presentations for the commission. This time, Cherokee Nation has local endorsements. Choctaw Nation does not.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen then issued that temporary restraining order, saying the commission never should have opened a second window for applications.

In fact, Griffen was one of two different Pulaski County judges who ruled in separate lawsuits last week that the commission violated its own rules when it opened that second window.

The other was Circuit Judge Tim Fox, who turned down Cherokee Nation Businesses' request to intervene in the older lawsuit filed by Gulfside Casino Partnership.

This particular lawsuit has bounced between circuit courts in Pulaski and Pope counties. That jurisdictional dispute also led earlier last week to a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court not to intervene.

Rest assured, the Supreme Court will eventually get one or more lawsuits over that prized Pope County casino permit.

For now, the action remains at the circuit court level, where Judge Griffin has indicated there is a "reasonable probability" that Citizens for a Better Pope County will prevail on the merits of the case before him.

A hearing date hasn't been set; but whatever Griffen eventually decides, the case is sure to be appealed.

So, too, is Gulfside's lawsuit, although it could take longer.

Judge Fox's ruling came after the Supreme Court told Gulfside it will not force the judge to expedite the case.

That's significant because Fox has said the case will stand in line behind 650 pending cases that are older than Gulfside's. That potential delay is what prompted Gulfside to seek the high court's intervention.

Maybe some other argument can speed the case along, but it looks for now like resolution of the litigation could be a long time coming.

Commentary on 01/08/2020

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