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State’s highest court declines to hear question on tribal casino

HOULTON, Maine — Maine’s top state court is declining to weigh in on the constitutionality of tribal gambling. 

In their brief opinion Tuesday, the supreme court justices said they don’t consider the issue “of a serious and immediate nature.”

The Maine House of Representatives this fall passed an order by tribal Rep. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to decide whether a U.S. Supreme Court decision would allow the Maliseets to conduct gambling on tribal trust land without state permission.

Without dissent, the justices said in their response Tuesday that the Maine House failed to file a brief explaining why the court should weigh in.

Under the Maine Constitution, the governor, House or Senate can ask the Supreme Judicial Court to “give their opinion upon important questions of law, and upon solemn occasions.”

Rep. Bear has been at the forefront of attempts at tribal gaming for years — all of which have failed at the ballot box and in the Legislature.

A non-voting member of the Legislature, Bear most recently argued that a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians gives tribes the authority to operate casinos if the states where their reservations are located allow casinos.

A 1988 federal law allows states to set rules for gambling.

Bear previously has said that gambling revenue could help Maine’s tribes on a range of public health and infrastructure issues. He also said a casino would benefit Aroostook County’s economy.

“We need jobs. We want to pay our own way,” Bear said during House debate last spring. “That’s the simple response to the question to us of ‘why do you want to do it? Why do you want gaming?’”

Numerous legislative attempts at granting gaming facilities to tribes have been defeated in recent years, with arguments against them usually centering around the fact that despite there being two privately run casinos here, Maine does not have a comprehensive gaming strategy or rules for their development.

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