Federal Judge Blocks Connecticut Tribes’ Hartford Casino Plan

Connecticut Casino Lawsuit Ryan Zinke

Previously, the Interior Department had 90 days to accept or reject a gaming compact amendment, but Judge Contreras said Ryan Zinke was not required to do so.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras from the District of Columbia ruled that Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation have no standing to compel US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to accept a revised gaming compact. The 55-year old judge ruled that the Interior Department has less discretion when dealing with the Mohegan Tribe, which is a party to the same lawsuit.

At first glance, the ruling by Rudolph Contreras was not all bad for Connecticut’s tribal gaming interests, because the federal judge added a caveat in his ruling. Legal analysis suggests that the ruling could stall a Hartford-area casino development plan backed by the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes of Connecticut.

In a 58-page decision handed down on Saturday, Judge Contreras ruled that the US Department of the Interior my rule on changes to the Mohegan Tribe’s amended tribal gaming compact “within a strict time period”. In short, Ryan Zinke must accept or reject an amended compact between Connecticut and the Mohegan Tribe for an East Windsor satellite casino.

Though that would suggest the East Windsor casino plan might get an answer sooner rather than later, The Connecticut Mirror reported that the federal judge’s decision had effectively stalled construction on the Hartford area satellite casino.

Andrew Doba Said Jobs Will Be Lost

Andrew Doba, the spokeman for the MMCT (East Windsor) project, said in a prepared statement, “We started this process because thousands of people will lose their jobs and the state will lose millions in revenue if we fail to compete with MGM [Resorts International] in Massachusetts. We are obviously disappointed with the court’s ruling and are currently reviewing our options.”

The Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot can appeal the decision to a higher judge. The District of Columbia has judges who take a broad view of federal authority, so an appellate judge might decide that states and tribes should receive a quick answer to their concerns. One development Saturday might forestall an appeal, though.

Contreras Says MGM Resorts Could Intervene

In a further blow to the tribes, Judge Contreras ruled that the Las Vegas casino company, MGM Resorts, could intervene in the lawsuit if any of the plaintiffs decide to appeal the judge’s decision. MGM Resorts’s upcoming casino in Western Massachusetts, MGM Springfield, is the reason the two tribes were building the East Windsor casino.

For decades, the tribes separately ran casinos in southeastern Connecticut: Foxwoods Casino and Mohegan Sun. Because those tribal casinos attracted gamblers from New York City and Boston, they were among the largest and most lucrative casinos in the world. Then nearby states approved land-based casino gambling, which undermined those casinos’ revenue base.

As New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania all passed legal land-based casino laws, the customer base of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun dried up. The market became fragmented and Connecticut’s casinos needed to maintain their loyal Connecticut customer base to remain solvent. When MGM Resorts won a license to build the MGM Springfield, it placed a casino within 30 minutes of the Hartford area.

Why Build a Hartford Casino?

Hartford gamblers could drive 30 minutes to the MGM Springfield, 50 minutes to Mohegan Sun (Uncasville), or 1 hour to Foxwoods (Ledyard). To forestall that decision, the Connecticut State Legislature fast-tracked a bill that would give the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes the right to build a smaller casino in the Hartford area as a joint enterprise. They went through a licensing process and chose East Windsor as the community which would receive the casino.

The tribes submitted their development plan to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an office within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The 1988 Indian Gaming Act requires tribes to gain approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for any new casino. In years past, such a decision was assumed, but not with Ryan Zinke in charge of the Interior Department.

Interior Department Delays Decision

While the statute requires the Interior Department to approve or reject plans within 90 days of submission, Ryan Zinke waited the better part of a year without rendering a decision. With the MGM Springfield’s grand opening coming in August 2018, the tribes filed the lawsuit to force a decision.

Judge Rudolph Contreras gave them their answer, and the answer was the Interior Department does not have to render a decision within 90 days. Or at least, Ryan Zinke does not owe an answer to the state of Connecticut or the Mashantucket Pequot tribe.

MGM Resorts Taunts Connecticut Tribes

For its part, MGM Resorts International used Saturday’s decision to taunt the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. In a press release, MGM Resorts said, “It has become increasingly apparent that the tribes’ promises of legal victory, no matter how often they are repeated, prove hollow.”

About Judge Rudolph Contreras

The 55-year old Rudolph Contreras was born on Staten Island to Cuban immigrant parents. He was raised in Miami, Florida. Contreras received a Bachelor of Science from Florida State University in 1984, then added his Juris Doctor from University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1991.

Contreras was nominated by President Barack Obama for the US District Court for the District of Columbia in July 2011. He appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2011 and was confirmed in committee later that month. In March 2012, Rudolph Contreras was confirmed in a vote on the Senate floor.

Rudolph Contreras’s Famous Cases

In April 2016, Rudolph Contreras was appointed for a term on the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by Chief Justice John Roberts. In November 2016, Judge Contreras through out a lawsuit against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell which would have required the Senate to rule on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.

Contreras presided over the early stages of the Michael Flynn case in December 2017, but recused himself for unknown reasons. Later reports suggested Contreras knew Peter Strzok and recused himself to avoid charges of a conflict of interest.