The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, stung by a judge’s ruling last month against its planned casino in Taunton, sought permission Monday to become a party to the lawsuit that could decide the fate of the $1 billion project.
In a 22-page filing, tribal officials said they were compelled to join the litigation because the lawyers who are defending the US Interior Department in the suit “may not adequately represent the interest of the tribe.”
A group of Taunton landowners sued the federal government earlier this year, saying it was wrong to designate the 150-acre casino site as an reservation. In late July, US District Judge William G. Young ruled in their favor, saying the Interior Department had misinterpreted a 1934 law governing what tribes are eligible for reservations. Under federal law, tribes have the right to operate casinos on reservation.
If Young’s order stands, the tribe will be deprived of “the opportunity to more fully realize its identity as a sovereign nation and to improve the collective condition of its members following centuries of mistreatment,” the filing read.
The interests of the Interior Department, which has used lawyers from the Justice Department, do not align with the tribe’s, the filing stated.
“The department’s interest is in the administration of federal lands of the United States for the public interest broadly and the implementation of federal Indian policy, not in the particular sovereign, economic, and personal interest of the tribe,” the tribe’s lawyers wrote.
The tribe began building the casino-hotel complex in April. It wrote that it plans to “stand down on active construction” and limit activities at the site to completing work in progress.
In a statement released Monday evening, tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said, “We asked our legal team to file a motion to intervene not because we do not have confidence in the process but to allow us to be more directly involved in defending our rights.
“The importance of our newly declared reservation cannot be overstated: these very lands are the lands of our ancestors, literally hold the bones of our ancestors,’’ the statement said.
Representatives from the Interior Department could not be reached for comment.
If Young allows the Mashpee to join the Interior Department as a defendant in the lawsuit, it will almost certainly appeal the decision. As it stands now, the decision to appeal rests with the Interior Department.
Adam Bond, a lawyer for the property owners, said the tribe appeared eager to represent itself. “I don’t know what’s going on in the background between the tribe and the government lawyers, but it appears not all is well,” he said.
Sean Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.