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Court battle over Pope County casino license, explained

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nyssa Kruse | October 28, 2021 at 3:29 p.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

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The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a ruling last week in a dispute over casino license application rules that essentially invalidates the winning application for the Pope County casino license.

The decision makes unclear what will happen with the license moving forward.

Back up: Why is there a casino license for Pope County?

Amendment 100 was approved by state voters in 2018 to, among other things, issue one casino license each in Jefferson and Pope counties.

While the Jefferson County casino is already operating, the question of which company should be awarded the Pope County casino license has been contentious for years.

Two companies were finalists for the Pope County license: Cherokee Nation Businesses, out of Oklahoma, and Gulfside Casino Partnership, out of Mississippi.

The Racing Commission, a state board appointed by the governor, awarded the license to Gulfside in 2020, but the court battle over license eligibility stems from before then.

What was the lawsuit the Supreme Court ruled on last week about?

Amendment 100 states casino license applicants need signed support from “the county judge” or the county quorum court. Gulfside's letters of support were submitted to the commission by Dec. 31, 2018, signed by the county judge at the time, who left office just days later.

On Jan. 3, 2019, the Racing Commission changed the rules to say that the letters of support must be dated and signed by the government officials in office "at the time of the submission of an application for a casino gaming license."

On March 5, 2019, the General Assembly passed legislation echoing the Racing Commission's new rule.

The Racing Commission opened the first application period in May 2019 and rejected the Gulfside application for not meeting the new signature requirement. Gulfside then brought a case, arguing the rule change and law passed earlier in the year were unconstitutional.

What did the state Supreme Court rule?

The court ruled not only that the commission and General Assembly’s rule change were constitutional but also that the original language of Amendment 100 requires the signature of the sitting county judge at the time of application.

That makes Gulfside’s application invalid.

As of now, the future of the Pope County license is unclear. The state Supreme Court has final say on matters of Arkansas law, but Gulfside can request a rehearing.

Cherokee Nation Businesses, which had signed support from the sitting county judge at the time of application as well as the quorum court, said it believes it will be awarded the license soon.

However, state officials have said only that they are considering next steps after the ruling.

Read more about the court’s decision on the lawsuit from reporter Jeannie Roberts and go here to read about people in Pope County pushing for their county to be removed as a casino location.


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