Idaho Postcard

Judge Rules Against Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Poker Lawsuit

Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Tribe is back on the defensive, as a federal judge ruled on Friday that it must stop dealing poker games at its casino in Worley. The ruling stems from lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the office of Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter against the tribe back in May in which the state sought to shut down the tribe’s poker room on the grounds that offering poker was against the law.

The state’s argument boiled down to the following passage in a press release at the time of filing:

Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), Indian tribes are authorized only to offer those types of games that are legal within the state where they are operating. The Idaho Constitution prohibits poker, classified under IGRA as a Class III game. That restriction is detailed in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s gaming compact with the State, which is required for operation of a tribal casino under IGRA.

IGRA (the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) defines Class I gaming as “social games solely for prizes of minimal value,” which often represents traditional Indian gaming. Class II games are bingo and card games that are either explicitly allowed or not explicitly prohibited by law. Class III games are essentially anything that does not fall under the other two categories.

Coeur d'Alene Casino

Coeur d’Alene Casino

Class III games are the games in question here. Tribes can offer the other two classes of games, but can only offer Class III games if a) they are legal in the state, b) the state and tribe have a compact in place to permit the tribe to offer them, and c) the tribe has an approved gaming ordinance.

Interestingly, in 1992, the tribal nation did attempt to enter into negotiations for a Class III compact, but the two parties could not come to an agreement on what was or was not permitted, so only a partial compact was drawn up. Later that year, in a move the Tribe considers sketchy at best, the state changed existing gambling laws to make poker expressly illegal.

Thus, the reason for the May lawsuit to shut down the Coeur d’Alene poker room and the tribe’s follow-up motion to dismiss. In June, rather than accept the state’s request for an injunction, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill told the state and the tribe to enter into arbitration, remedy that is written into the compact. In his ruling Friday, Judge Winmill wrote that he was addressing each party’s motions because the tribe decided to litigate rather than accept arbitration.

Judge Winmill addressed a number of things in his 24-page ruling, most notably what class of game poker is and whether or not it is a game of skill. As to the classification, the judge needed to determine if poker fell into either Class I or Class II, as Class II accounted for everything else. Poker is clearly not Class I; the real question is whether or not is Class II. To determine this, the judge looked at what forms of gambling were either explicitly allowed and/or prohibited by state law. He wrote, “Idaho’s constitution strictly prohibits all forms of gambling, with just three specific exceptions: (1) a state lottery, (2) pari-mutuel betting, and (3) certain bingo and raffle games.”

He went on to say that the law prohibits “any form of casino gambling including, but not limited to . . . poker . . . .” Thus, he concludes, poker does not qualify as a Class II game and is thus a Class III game. And since it is not a Class III game included in a compact between the tribe and the state, the tribe is not allowed to offer it.

As for the skill question, Judge Winmill points to the state’s legal definition of gambling, which reads, in part, “.…risking any money, credit, deposit or other thing of value for gain contingent in whole or in part upon lot, chance….”

There, his ruling was fairly easy. Chance obviously plays some role in poker, thus it is gambling. He seems to understand the argument that a player’s long-term success is dependent upon his skill, but to that he says, “This argument might gain traction if Idaho had defined contests of chance to mean games where the outcome depended mostly – or to “a material degree” – upon chance. If that were the case, the Court would probably need to further analyze the game to determine whether chance or skill predominates. But Idaho law does not leave room for this sort of an inquiry.”

In the end, Judge Winmill denied the Coeur d’Alene’s motion to dismiss the state’s lawsuit and granted the state’s motion for injunctive relief.

According to the Spokesman-Review, the tribe immediately appealed the Friday ruling to the 9th District Court of Appeals. One of the problems with the ruling, tribal legislative affairs director Helo Hancock is quoted as saying, is that contrary to what the judge wrote, the tribe never decided to litigate. “It appears there may be a misunderstanding by the court,” Hancock said. “Because our compact is clear that it is the aggrieved party that is supposed to file or provide notice of their intent to arbitrate. And we’re not the aggrieved party. We don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. We think we’re well within our rights. It was the state who sued us, and accordingly it would be the state’s responsibility as the aggrieved party to file notice of their intent to arbitrate. That really isn’t on the tribe.”

The tribe’s chairman, Chief Allan, expressed his dismay over the ruling, saying, “Obviously, we’re very disappointed in Judge Winmill’s decision. Poker is so widely played across the state by so many different people and organizations that it sounds ridiculous to say that everyone playing poker in the State of Idaho is breaking the law, but that is what this decision says.”


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