The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe took a gamble in April when it broke ground on a $1 billion casino in Taunton, despite a federal lawsuit that sought to derail the project.
Now, the casino’s fate is in doubt, after US District Court Judge William G. Young ruled Thursday that the Department of the Interior lacked the authority to designate the tribe’s casino site as a sovereign reservation.
The tribe said the decision will likely be appealed, but lawyers for the Taunton property owners who brought the suit said Friday they expect the ruling will stand.
“We believe Judge Young’s ruling is correct,” said David Tennant, a lawyer at Nixon Peabody in Boston. “It meets all the standards of the [law] and I fully expect it will be upheld.”
Adam Bond, a Middleborough lawyer who also represents the residents, said the ruling was “an incredible, straightforward reading of the law.”
Young ruled that the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act only authorizes the government to place land in a trust for tribes that were recognized by the federal government at the time the law was passed. A 2009 US Supreme Court decision, involving land in Rhode Island, also seemed to restrict the law to tribes recognized in 1934, although legal specialists say the apparent cutoff date is not ironclad.
The Mashpee was not recognized as a tribe by the federal government until 2007.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee’s tribal council, said Thursday that the tribe was reviewing the decision, but said an appeal was likely. He did not say whether the tribe planned to halt construction.
Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, declined to comment on whether the government will appeal the decision, saying “this is a matter of pending litigation.”
Specialists were divided on the prospects of an appeal. Paul DeBole, an assistant professor of political science at Lasell College who closely follows the gambling industry, said the Mashpee appear to have a solid chance.
If only tribes that were recognized in 1934 can acquire reservation land, it would “basically negate the whole purpose” of the law, he said.
But the Rev. Richard McGowan, an economics professor at Boston College, said the government’s decision went against Supreme Court precedent.
“They were on shaky ground,” he said. “For them to win on appeal, I’d be shocked.”