Three months after construction on a $1 billion casino began in Taunton the work could come to an abrupt halt.
On Monday, a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit filed by Taunton property owners opposed to the casino said the suit raises “a serious issue that warrants prompt action” and called the parties to return to court on July 11 for a final hearing to decide the case.
The suit, filed in February, claims that the federal government erred when it designated the land where the casino is planned as a Mashpee Wampanoag Native American reservation. Federal law allows tribes to open casinos on reservations.
US District Judge William G. Young’s order seemed to catch lawyers for the US Department of Justice off guard. Those lawyers are defending the US Interior Department’s reservation designation. They said they would need until Aug. 31 to assemble records necessary for a final hearing.
“That’s simply unacceptable,” Young said. “You go back to [the Interior Department] and tell them to produce the record. I won’t be told it’s the end of summer before I look at it.”
“These matters are pressing and I’m sensitive to that,” he said.
Young also indicated the issue is not one of facts, but of law — how to interpret a 1934 law. In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled that only tribes recognized by the federal government as of 1934 could be eligible to have reservation land. The Mashpee gained recognition decades later, in 2007.
But Interior Department officials interpreted the law differently when they ruled last year in favor of a Mashpee reservation.
After the hearing, David H. Tennant, a lawyer for the property owners, said Young’s order “was everything we hoped for.”
Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee tribal chairman, said in a statement that the Justice Department lawyers would be prepared to defend the “decision that reestablished our tribal lands in Taunton.”
The Mashpee launched construction on the casino in the spring, despite the pending lawsuit.
If Young rules in favor of the property owners he could order construction stopped while an appeal, if one is filed, goes forward.
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.