Long-embattled plans by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build a $1 billion resort casino in Taunton gained potential traction last night when a federal judge rejected a Trump administration rule that would strip the tribe of sovereignty over its lands in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Judge Paul Friedman of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. issued summary judgment in favor of the tribe and found that a 2018 decision by the Interior Department over reservation lands in Mashpee and Taunton was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The court remanded the case back to the Interior Department to reconsider their decision in line with the court’s ruling.

"Today, the DC District Court righted what would have been a terrible and historic injustice by finding that the Department of the Interior broke the law in attempting to take our land out of trust," tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said in response.

Democratic Congressman Bill Keating (MA-09), a longtime advocate for the tribe, said  that the court's decision "is a repudiation of the Trump Administration's faulty legal reasoning" behind the 2018 DOI ruling. Keating said the administration "has pursued a policy designed to punish the Mashpee Wampanoag."

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe via Massachusetts Gaming Commission
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe via Massachusetts Gaming Commission

The issue has been convoluted. Following a decades-long battle, the Mashpee gained status as a federally recognized tribe in 2007. However, in 2009, a Supreme Court ruling known as Carcieri v. Salazar excluded the tribe from the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Using a different provision of the Act, the Obama administration in 2015 declared 150 acres in Mashpee and 170 acres in Taunton as the tribe’s initial reservation. In 2018, the Trump administration reversed that decision. Litigation ensued.

To further complicate matters, the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this year moved to "disestablish" the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation following a separate Appeals Court ruling against the tribe. The tribe needs the federal government to hold its land "in trust" in order to build the $1 billion First Light Resort & Casino.

Prior to the 2018 Interior decision, the Mashpee had been readying to build its tribal casino, even as the project remained mired in legal challenges filed by neighbors bankrolled in part by a competing company trying to build a state-licensed casino in Brockton.

Keating has long sought a legislative fix. A bill he sponsored passed the House in May of 2019, after it was nearly derailed by a Trump tweet. The measure, which would clarify tribal sovereignty over the land, has yet to be taken up by the Senate.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, prides itself on having inhabited present day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. The Mashpee tribe has approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens.

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