June 15, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas

On June 15, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas, No. 20-493, holding that Texas cannot prohibit a federally recognized Native American tribe from engaging in certain gambling activities under the Ysleta del Sur and Alabama and Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act.

This case involves the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a small Native American reservation that seeks to continue operating its bingo-themed casino near El Paso, Texas. In 1968, Congress transferred the federal government’s trust responsibility for the Pueblo to the state of Texas. In 1983, responding to a lower-court decision holding that the transfer of those trust responsibilities violated the Texas Constitution, Texas terminated the trust relationship. Then, in 1987, Congress passed the Restoration Act, which restored the trust relationship of the federal government with the tribe, but also included a provision that barred gambling activity on the reservations that is “prohibited” by Texas law.

In 2016, the tribe started offering bingo on its reservation. Texas responded by suing the tribe, arguing that the Restoration Act forbids the tribe from defying any Texas gaming regulations, including one stating that bingo is permissible only for charitable purposes. Texas argued that the Restoration Act effectively subjects the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo to the entire body of Texas gaming laws and regulations. The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, however, argued that consistent with the Court’s precedent in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and the plain meaning of “prohibit” in the Restoration Act, if Texas merely regulates bingo (as opposed to fully prohibiting it), the tribe may offer the game and it may do so subject only to the limits found in federal law and its own law, not state law. The district court sided with Texas and enjoined the tribe’s bingo operations, and the Fifth Circuit panel affirmed.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The Court explained that while Texas “contends that Congress expressly ordained that all of its gaming laws should be treated as surrogate federal law enforceable on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Reservation . . . we find no evidence Congress endowed state law with anything like the power Texas claims.” The Court focused on the Restoration Act’s use of the term “prohibited,” observing that the statute’s use of the term only bars the tribe from offering those gaming activities Texas fully prohibits, as opposed to those it merely regulates, like bingo.

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh joined.

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