Arkansas Supreme Court denies petition seeking rehearing in Pope County casino license effort

Arkansas State Supreme Court building shown in this undated file photo.
Arkansas State Supreme Court building shown in this undated file photo.


The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday denied a petition from the Legends Resort and Casino and Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses seeking a rehearing in the case in which the court ruled the Arkansas Racing Commission's award of the Pope County casino license to the consortium violated Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, approved by voters in November 2018, authorized the Arkansas Racing Commission to license four full-fledged casinos. Three casinos currently operate in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.

In a 5-2 ruling Oct. 26, the state's Supreme Court affirmed a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued in January. Fox ruled the Arkansas Racing Commission erred in the licensing process by awarding the license to two entities when the Arkansas Constitution states that only a single entity can hold a casino license, and that Legends does not meet licensing requirements written into the Arkansas Constitution because the company has no prior casino gaming experience. The Cherokee/Legends consortium challenged Fox's ruling to state Supreme Court.

In November 2021, a divided Arkansas Racing Commission issued the Pope County casino license to the Legends/Cherokee consortium after it nullified the license that it awarded to the Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership in 2020. Gulfside challenged the commission's decision, asking Fox to void the license to the consortium.

The commission's award of the casino license to the consortium came after the state Supreme Court in October 2021 reversed Fox's ruling that declared unconstitutional a commission rule and state law that required that letters of endorsement for casino licenses come from local officials in office at the time the license application is submitted. Gulfside's letter of support was signed by former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson, just days before his term expired Dec. 31, 2018.

The Pope County casino license has been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases. Billions of dollars are collectively wagered at the state's casinos each year.

The next step will be for the Arkansas Racing Commission to meet to receive input from the attorney general's office and the state Department of Finance and Administration in order to determine a course of action, Trent Minner, administrator of state Department of Finance and Administration's Regulatory Division, which includes the Racing Commission, said in a written statement.

Finance department spokesman Scott Hardin said the Arkansas Racing Commission has several scheduled meetings on Saturdays throughout live racing at Oaklawn, and the next meeting will take place January 20 at Oaklawn.

"However, we do not have any meetings scheduled to consider the Pope County license," he said. "That meeting would most likely take place in Little Rock. If a meeting is called specifically for this issue, we will immediately alert media and the public."

The Arkansas Racing Commission includes chairman Alex Lieblong of Conway and members Mark Lamberth of Batesville, Steve Anthony of Fordyce, Denny East of Marion, Michael Post of Altus, Bo Hunter of Fort Smith and Steve Landers of Little Rock, according to the commission's website. The current terms for Lieblong and Post expire Sunday.

On Thursday, the Arkansans for Local Voices ballot committee filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission that states the committee will advocate for a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2024 general election ballot to repeal authorization for a casino in Pope County under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution and "to require a local option vote for any future potential casino locations."

Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said Thursday in a written statement that "As the only qualified applicant with the exclusive support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court, we are eager to see the Arkansas Racing Commission and the Arkansas Attorney General's office determine the next steps in fulfilling Amendment 100.

"We are prepared to once again demonstrate our 30 plus years of experience in gaming and hospitality to the Arkansas Racing Commission and move forward with building Legends Resort & Casino, bringing much-needed economic growth to the community and state," he said.

Casey Castleberry, counsel for Gulfside Casino Partnership, said in a written statement that "We are pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed its recent decision that the license issued to Legends and CNB was null and void.

"We now await guidance and next steps from the Arkansas Racing Commission, the state's governing body on gaming, as to how and when it will receive and consider applications," he said. "We look forward to demonstrating to the Pope County Quorum Court why Gulfside is worthy of the county's support."

Cross said Thursday in a written statement he regards the state Supreme Court's denial of the Legends/Cherokee petition for a rehearing on the case as the clearest path forward to allow the Arkansas Racing Commission to act immediately to establish a new application period pursuant to their rules.

"The high court's decision effectively ended any form of litigation or questions remaining regarding the casino issue over the past five years, so I look at this optimistically as a 'clean slate' for the Racing Commission to act unencumbered by litigation," he said in a written statement.

"The Commission will now have the opportunity to act expeditiously on the only qualified applicant with Cherokee Nation Entertainment having the only constitutionally mandated qualifications to secure licensure," Cross said. "With my support, and the Resolution of Support passed by the Pope County Quorum Court, it is my sincere hope the Commission acts quickly and efficiently to award the license as mandated by the Constitution."

Hans Stiritz, a member of the Arkansans for Local Voices ballot question committee, said the state Supreme Court's denial of the petition for a rehearing in the case is not surprising.

"The casino question in Pope County has been a flawed process from the beginning, starting with Amendment 100's disregard for the vote of our county. Support of commercial gambling in a specific county should be in the hands of the electorate, not a single elected official," he said in a written statement.

If the Arkansas Racing Commission chooses to open a new application period, "we hope they will not only carefully weigh CNB's aggressive efforts to keep the Pope County community silenced on this issue, but also respect any efforts by the people of Arkansas to correct the injustice of Amendment 100," Stiritz said.

The Arkansans for Local Voices ballot committee filed paperwork Thursday, he said.

"Pope County voted strongly against Amendment 100 in 2018, and has been denied a vote in the issue ever since. This is wrong, and we believe Arkansans will understand that commercial gambling should never be forced on any community," Stiritz said.

According to the Arkansans for Local Voices committee's filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, Jim P. Knight of Russellville is the president, Bill James of Russellville is the treasurer, and Rick Thone of Russellville and Stiritz are general officers.

In August 2022, the Fair Play for Arkansas committee that promoted a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate Pope County as a state-licensed casino site narrowly failed to submit enough signatures to get on the 2022 general election ballot, Republican Secretary of State John Thurston said at that time. The Choctaw Nation helped finance the committee.


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