Last October, Burrel Jones made a trip to the Naskila Gaming center in Livingston, Texas. The bingo hall is located on the reservation of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, and he expected just another routine visit. What he got, though, was a tumble down the stairs and a trip to the hospital. As a result, he took the tribe to court, arguing that, since the gambling facility was operating “illegally,” it wasn’t entitled to protections normally provided to tribes. Now, Jones is suffering pain in his hip and his wallet.
As part of a federal policy to provide restitution to native Indian tribes for having been essentially wiped out as Europeans moved into what is now the U.S., recognized tribes are generally immune from lawsuits. An exception is made if they have waived this immunity – something that would be foolish to do. However, Jones asserted that the tribe was breaking state law by offering the bingo games, in violation of the Texas Restoration Act, according to his lawsuit, and, therefore, wasn’t immune from his lawsuit.
The TRA states that tribal gaming activity cannot be offered unless it matches what is available throughout the Lone Star State. Some lawmakers have tried to assert that the gambling facility’s games violate the TRA, but the tribe has continuously been able to gather support for its argument that the games are no different than what is found elsewhere throughout Texas. Lawmakers in the state are currently discussing a bill that would clear the air, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is still fighting, and wants the Alabama-Coushatta tribe to be fined $10,000 a day for having the Naskila Gaming center open. That fine would be retroactive to May 2016.
When Jones took his spill, he fractured his humerus, sustained radial nerve damage and was knocked unconscious. The incident has allegedly resulted in impaired cognitive functions and mobility, nausea and permanent leg damage, and he wanted the tribe to be held accountable. Arguing that the gambling facility was illegally operating, the tribe couldn’t claim immunity. Why he would take part in activity that, according to him, was illegal isn’t clear, but that’s a subject for another day.
In stating the tribe’s case and requesting a dismissal, lawyers told the judge, “Tribal immunity is a common-law right of the Tribe that exists independent of the Restoration Act, subject to express modification by Congress or the Tribe itself (which does not exist here). No violation of the Restoration Act could even conceivably give rise to judicial revocation of the Tribe’s centuries-old sovereign authority.”
The judge agreed, explaining that only Congress has the authority to alter the definition of sovereign immunity. The courts, he added, have no say in the matter and, as such, could not legally hear the case. Jones will simply have to work things out on his own.