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Arkansas Supreme Court overturns ruling that cleared way for Gulfside to build Pope County casino

by Jeannie Roberts | October 21, 2021 at 12:09 p.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

Actions by the state Legislature and the Arkansas Racing Commission to add rules and requirements to the casino amendment were in line with the state Constitution, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The state's high court reversed and dismissed a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox that declared unconstitutional a commission rule and state law that required that letters of endorsements for casino licenses come from local officials in office at the time the license application is submitted.

Thursday's ruling essentially invalidates an application from Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership to build and operate a casino in Pope County. State and casino officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment Thursday morning to clarify what the ruling means for the future of the Pope County license.

"Accordingly, we hold that the 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 ARC," Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker wrote.

The case was filed by Gulfside in 2019 after its license application was initially denied by the Racing Commission because its letter of support was signed by County Judge Jim Ed Gibson just days before his term expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

The Racing Commission did not open the first application period until May 2019.

Cherokee Nation Businesses later submitted an application to the Racing Commission after gaining support from Ben Cross, the current Pope County county judge, as well as from the Pope County Quorum Court. Gulfside and Cherokee Nation Businesses were two of five applicants for the license.

Fox had ruled in May that the state Racing Commission rule and Arkansas Code Annotated 23-117-101(b) — both of which require that the endorsements come from local officials in office at the time of application for a license — added an extra requirement to Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution.

The amendment was approved by voters in 2018 to authorize the expansion of gambling operations at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis into full-fledged casinos. It also allowed the Racing Commission to issue one casino license each in Jefferson and Pope counties. The question of which company should be awarded the Pope County casino license has been contentious for years.

Amendment 100 does not stipulate when the endorsements have to be dated or submitted.


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