COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A statewide ban on video gambling means that South Carolina's only federally recognized tribe cannot have a casino on its York County reservation, the state's highest court ruled Wednesday.
In its unanimous opinion, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed with the Catawba Indian Nation, which has argued that a state law allowing gambling cruises to leave from South Carolina ports also means the 2,800-member tribe can offer the same games at a reservation gambling hall.
The tribe had been appealing a circuit judge's 2012 ruling that, not only does the law that allows cruise ships not give the Catawbas the right to gamble, but that the tribe gave up that right voluntarily in its settlement agreement.
In that agreement, signed in 1993 with state and federal governments, the tribe agreed to drop a lawsuit claiming that broken treaties dating back to Andrew Jackson's presidency meant they should get hundreds of square miles of land. In exchange, the tribe was given its current reservation and permission to open two bingo halls, as well as any additional gambling allowed by the state.
It's that last provision - to the same extent allowed under state law - that entitles the tribe to video gambling, since the gambling cruise ships are allowed, Catawba attorney Billy Wilkins argued before the court in January. Justices disagreed, saying that the state's overall gambling ban has been in place since 2000, so the tribe's argument is moot.
"Contrary to the Tribe's assertions, the prohibition on video poker is being applied to the Tribe 'to the same extent' provided by state law," justices wrote. "The ban on video poker devices remains in force throughout the territorial limits of South Carolina, including the State's territorial waters. Nothing has changed in that regard."
State prosecutors have consistently argued that the same law that the tribe relies upon notes that gambling cannot begin until boats reach international waters and specifically prohibits any casino-like gambling in areas controlled by South Carolina.
A spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson said the prosecutor was pleased with the ruling.
"As the court stated, the tribe must be treated as any other citizen for the purposes of video gambling," Mark Powell said in a statement. "The decision reaffirms that video gambling is banned in South Carolina without exception."
The Catawba tribe has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get some form of gambling. A Rock Hill bingo hall was open from 1997 to 2006 but was ultimately overtaken by competition from the state lottery. The tribe plans to open a new facility.
In their initial lawsuit against South Carolina and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, the Catawbas said the gambling hall would be a critical component to their reservation. An economic study said the casino and two nearby hotels would yield more than 4,000 jobs, bring in $259 million in annual revenue and pay nearly $110 million to the state through fees and taxes.
Last summer, the tribe filed an application with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 16 acres of land near King Mountain, N.C., into trust for the tribe, saying a 220,000-square-foot casino, 1,500 hotel rooms, plus restaurants and shops would create more than 3,000 permanent positions on top of hundreds of construction jobs.
The North Carolina effort about 30 miles northwest of the Catawbas' reservation in Rock Hill is on hold while the tribe seeks a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs whether to place the property in trust.