Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Monday told lawyers for Gulfside Casino Partnership, which is challenging state regulators' refusal to license it for gambling in Pope County, that he cannot give their case special consideration, so they can either accept his schedule or transfer the proceedings back to Pope County and seek a faster resolution there.
The Arkansas Racing Commission denied Gulfside's application in June, and the Mississippi-based casino operator appealed that decision to Pulaski County Circuit Court in July. Citing a change in venue law by the General Assembly, Fox transferred the case to Pope County Circuit Court.
The law change in 2017 upended more than 140 years of precedent, and for the Gulfside appeal, it had the effect of giving either court jurisdiction over the proceedings. Prior to the changes made to Arkansas Code Annotated 16-60-104 in 2017, Pulaski County Circuit Court was the only court allowed to resolve administrative appeals.
In his August transfer order, Fox noted that Pope County has a lot at stake in the final outcome of the case, the potential for millions of dollars in construction and operation, hundreds of jobs and "substantial" tax dollars.
""It is patently clear ... that the citizens, residents and taxpayers of Pope County have a substantial interest in this matter being conducted in Pope County," he wrote in his August order.
The judge said Monday that he thought long and hard about the issues at stake before shifting the proceedings to Russellville.
Fox also noted that Gulfside did not contest the transfer when its lawyers could have asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and overrule him. Instead, Gulfside lawyers asked the presiding Pope County circuit judge, Bill Pearson, to send the case back to Pulaski County, which he did Sept. 23, without explanation.
By not challenging his transfer ruling, Gulfside "has already delayed, by several months so far, the ultimate resolution of this matter," Fox told the lawyers Monday.
"The same discretion used by this court in deciding that the case was important to ... Pope County and should be advanced for expedited handling, also dictates that in Pulaski County, this case is no more important, nor less important, than any other case filed in Pulaski County," he said.
Fox said he's got about 650 pending cases older than the Gulfside appeal, and he said he can't move the case forward until he resolves those older cases. He concluded the hearing by telling Gulfside lawyers they have until Monday to decide whether to accept his timetable or transfer the case back to Pope County, where they will have grounds to ask for an expedited process.
Reached for comment after the hearing, Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry of Batesville was firm in his belief that the suit is filed in the right place.
"We believe the law requires the case to be heard in Pulaski County," he said.
Fox, one of Pulaski County's three full-time civil judges, is assigned 17.5% of those cases. Court filings show that there were 8,806 cases filed in 2018 and, as of Monday, 8,488 so far in 2019. There were 770 civil cases filed in Pope County in 2018 and 646 filed so far in 2019.
Speaking on the change to the venue law, Fox told the lawyers that he endorsed it. Before the law changed, administrative appeals of decisions made by state agencies had to be resolved in Pulaski County, the home of the state Capitol.
But the "unintended consequences" of that 100-plus-year-old restriction has left some Arkansans with the impression that the rule of law is different in Pulaski County than in the state's other 74 counties, the judge said.
By lifting that restriction to allow other circuit courts to decide administrative appeals, Arkansans will get the chance to have cases that are important to them and their communities decided locally instead of by Pulaski County courts, Fox said.
The Racing Commission denied Gulfside's application because it included endorsements of local officials who had left office by the time the application was filed. Amendment 100 to the state constitution, approved in 2018 by voters, allows the licensing of new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties if they have the backing of local officials. The Racing Commission's rules and a 2019 state law specify that the local endorsements must come from officials in office at the time the application is made.
The Pope County Quorum Court has endorsed Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino license. Cherokee Nation submitted an amended application after it received those endorsements. The Choctaw Nation, which lacks a local endorsement, also has applied for the license in the most recent application period by the Racing Commission.
Metro on 11/26/2019