BEHIND the billions of dollars in profits earned each year by Indian tribes from reservation gambling, a fundamental question looms. When tribes and states clash over gaming issues, who settles the fights?
This week the US Supreme Court agreed to decide a Florida Seminole gambling case that will resolve this key jurisdictional issue - with implications for states and tribes across the country.
At issue is an interpretation of the 11th Amendment of the US Constitution, which says no sovereign government can sue another. The Seminoles are asking the court to reinterpret the amendment to give federal authorities the jurisdiction to settle such disputes.
If the high court decides in favor of the Seminole tribe - which like other tribes is considered a sovereign government - states would no longer be able to claim constitutional immunity in refusing to negotiate.
The long-range result, in many cases, could be more slot machines on more reservations.
``The appeals court denied us,'' says James Shore, tribal attorney for the Seminoles in Hollywood, Fla., ``but now if we win at the Supreme Court, it means that the state has to sit down with us to decide whether or not it will allow casino gambling in the state.''
In 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed, Congress authorized states to negotiate with tribes and draw up ``compacts'' that spell out the level of gambling activity and regulations.
Indian gaming is a $6-billion-a-year industry and growing rapidly. But as many as 12 states, including Wisconsin, Florida, Washington, and Michigan, either have refused to negotiate or claimed negotiating rights that tribes believed were not theirs.
Ultimately the Seminoles want the right to offer casino-style gambling on the reservation, a class of gambling outlawed by the state. But first the tribe must prevail at the Supreme Court.
``If the Supreme Court rules against the state,'' says John Glogau, an attorney with Florida's Attorney General's Office, ``it doesn't give the Seminoles the right to do anything.''
In a separate case, on hold pending the Supreme Court decision, a district judge suggested that the Seminoles petition the US Secretary of the Interior to settle their dispute.
But if that occurs, says Mr. Glogau, the state would open a whole new round of litigation.