Motions to dismiss lawsuit over Pope County casino license denied in circuit court

Judge won’t block Pope County resident’s challenge to Legends Resort permit

A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

Two motions seeking to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of a casino license in Pope County granted to Legends Resort and Casino by the Arkansas Racing Commission were denied Wednesday by a judge in Pulaski County who said the plaintiff in the case has standing to take the issue to court and that he has presented factual allegations that present a constitutional question in the matter.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen denied the two motions, filed by the Arkansas Racing Commission and by Legends Resort and Casino, LLC/Cherokee Nation Businesses, LLC, which was issued the casino license for Pope County by the Racing Commission on Nov. 12, 2021. The casino license was awarded after the Racing Commission nullified a license it had previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership.

On Dec. 7, 2021, John "Cliff" Goodin of Pope County challenged the license issue on the grounds that the Racing Commission unconstitutionally issued the license despite Legends not being a qualified applicant under Amendment 100, which authorized casino gaming in Arkansas, and that it violated the Arkansas Constitution for the commission to award the license to the "non-applicant entity" Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC/Legends Resort and Casino LLC.

Legends Resort and Casino -- which was formed as an Arkansas limited liability company on Sept. 11, 2019 -- submitted an application on Jan. 15, 2020, to the Racing Commission for the license. Prior to that, the application was solely in the name of Cherokee Nation Businesses, a company wholly owned by Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S.

In the dismissal motions, filed in January by Legends Resort and Casino and in April by the Racing Commission, both entities asked that Griffen dismiss Goodin's lawsuit on several grounds.

The Racing Commission contended that Goodin lacks standing to sue, that the Court lacks jurisdiction, that his claims are moot and that they are barred by sovereign immunity. Legends Resort and Casino, in its motion, contended that Goodin's argument over Legends' casino gaming experience was "deeply flawed" and that Goodin simply wishes to stop development of a casino in Pope County "at all costs."

Legends also argued that the issue is moot because the license was issued to "the only qualified applicant" for the license.

In 2018, voters in Arkansas approved Amendment 100 to the state constitution, which authorized expansion of gambling operations at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis into full-fledged casinos and allowed the Racing Commission to issue one casino license each in Jefferson and Pope counties.

In his ruling denying both motions, Griffen said that as a taxpayer and Pope County citizen who is affected by the state law, Goodin is entitled to challenge the constitutionality of the Racing Commission's action, and that the Racing Commission is not entitled to sovereign immunity because Goodin is only seeking injunctive relief, not monetary damages.

Griffen said if it is found that the Racing Commission violated Amendment 100, "then its issuance of the casino gaming license to CNB/Legends is invalid and any rights asserted by the purported licensee are null and void."

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