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The Coquille Indian tribe wants to build a new casino in Medford. They say it’ll provide needed jobs and contribute to the region’s economic growth. But lots of other folks are up in arms about it. They predict a slew of social and economic ills. The Cow Creek Indian tribe also fears the casino would drain business from their own casino. JPR’s Liam Moriarty takes a look at this controversial proposal -- who stands to gain, who stands to lose and what the stakes are for southern Oregon.

Medford Casino Proposal May Hinge On Arcane Points Of Law

Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Coquille Indian tribe’s controversial proposal to build a casino in Medford is facing its first major legal hurdle; getting the federal government to grant the site trust status, making it Indian land. In this second part of our series “Going For Broke,” JPR finds that whether the project gets the go-ahead may depend on how officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs interpret the fine print of laws and agreements that go back decades. 

First, some history …

In the Northwest states and California, casinos can be operated only by Indian tribes and only on reservations or other Indian trust land.  That’s rooted in a 1987 US Supreme Court decision limiting states’ jurisdiction over tribal gambling. The following year, Congress responded by passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Howard Arnett: “That’s the federal statute that sets out the whole structure of Indian gaming in the United States.”

Howard Arnett is an adjunct professor teaching Indian law at the University of Oregon Law School. As Arnett explains, the Act laid out two classes of casinos: Class 3 is your full-on Las Vegas-style casino with slots, blackjack and so on. Class 2 casinos allow only bingo, pull-tabs or other games where players play against each other, not against the house.

The casino the Coquille tribe wants to build in Medford is of the Class 2 variety. And Arnett says, that limits the state’s say-so.

Howard Arnett: “Because the state has no role legally under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act with regard to Class II gaming.”

One objection that’s been raised by casino opponents is that allowing the Coquille to have a second casino would violate the state’s long-standing “One Tribe, One Casino” policy. The tribe already has a Class 3 casino on its reservation, in North Bend.

Arnett notes that each tribe in Oregon has signed a gaming compact with the state, an agreement that spells out how tribal gambling operations will be run. And, he says …

Howard Arnett: “To the extent there is a “one casino per tribe” policy it’s reflected in the compacts. And Class 2 is outside the compacts.”

The Coquille maintain ­their compact doesn’t limit them to one casino, anyway.

Judy Metcalf: “Some tribes in Oregon may have made that deal with the governor. The Coquille tribe did not.”

That’s Judy Metcalf, CEO of the Coquille Economic Development Corporation. She points out that the gaming compact the tribe signed in 2000 with then-Governor John Kitzhaber barred them from seeking a second Class 3 casino for five years. That’s long since expired. If the tribe did want another Class 3 casino, she says, the “One Tribe, One Casino” policy wouldn’t apply to them.

Judy Metcalf: “In fact, it says they will have the ability to negotiate for a second Class 3 within their compact.”

Credit Bureau of Indian Affairs
An aerial view of the proposed site plan for the Coquille casino in Medford. (Click to enlarge)

So, given that the Coquille proposal is for a type of casino that state and local governments have no jurisdiction over – and given that the Medford site is in the five-county area in southern Oregon that Congress authorized the Coquille to do business in – is their Medford casino proposal a legal slam-dunk? Coquille tribal chair Brenda Meade seems to think so.

Brenda Meade: “Our restoration act defines our lands and our lands of interest. That is the agreement the federal government and the Coquille tribe agreed on, and that is the law that we have to operate under today.”

Others see the legal picture as being less clear-cut. At a recent public hearing, John Huttl – Deputy Counsel for the City of Medford -- pointed to another federal law.

John Huttl: “The City of Medford espouses the two-part determination under 25 USC Section 2719 (b)(1)(A).”

Medford, Jackson County and others who oppose the casino say the law that should apply in this case requires the US Secretary of the Interior to consult local officials and nearby tribes and make two determinations: that the casino would be in the best interests of the tribe that’s asking for it, and that it would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.

This law also gives the governor veto rights. Former Governor John Kitzhaber strongly opposed the new Coquille casino. A spokesperson for new Governor Kate Brown said she hasn’t had time to look into the issue yet.

However the Bureau of Indian Affairs rules, the legal complexities of this case are likely to keep lawyers for all sides busy for years to come.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.