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Opponents of casino on Martha’s Vineyard file appeal

Tribal property at Menemsha Pond.
Tribal property at Menemsha Pond.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2015)

Opponents of a casino bid on Martha’s Vineyard are appealing a federal court decision in favor of the tribal gambling hall.

Extending a lengthy legal battle, the state, the Town of Aquinnah, and a group of landowners are seeking a reversal of a recent ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals that the Aquinnah Wampanoag have the right to open a small casino on their reservation.

Opponents are asking that a six-member panel of judges from the First Circuit, or the original three-member panel that heard the case, reconsider the ruling.

Aquinnah tribal chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais dismissed the appeal as “a last-ditch effort” to block the tribe from achieving “economic self-sufficiency.”

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“The tribe remains confident that the Court of Appeals will confirm its decision, and we look forward to a final resolution of this long-standing dispute,” Andrews-Maltais said.

The tribe wants to build a casino with 300 slot machines on the western tip of the island, saying it could generate close to $5 million a year in revenue. Residents have long opposed the plan.

When Massachusetts lawmakers legalized casinos in 2011, they did not consider the Aquinnah a candidate for a license, citing a deal the tribe struck with the state and town in the 1980s.

At the time, the tribe had sued for the return of a large tract of its ancestral tribal lands, claiming they had been wrongly taken. In the settlement, the tribe received almost 500 acres, along with federal recognition as a tribe, but agreed to abide by state and local laws that “prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance.”

That agreement, with its explicit casino prohibition, was enacted into law by Congress. But in its April 10 decision, the appeals court brushed aside that prohibition, saying it became void when Congress later passed a comprehensive measure that specifically recognized the rights of hundreds of tribes to operate casinos on reservations.

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State and town officials had asserted that the land settlement deal prohibited a tribal casino, no matter what laws Congress later approved.

Under federal law, tribes can operate slots parlors — video bingo machines, in this case — without a state’s blessing. That means the Aquinnah casino could operate outside the purview of the state’s Gaming Commission, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars for the licenses it has awarded to resort casinos in Springfield and Everett.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.