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Rhode Island Supreme Court Holds Indian Tribe Has Standing To Challenge Constitutionality of State Casino Acts

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has held that the Narragansett Indian Tribe ("the Tribe") has standing under a state statute to challenge the constitutionality of state legislation allowing the state's two casinos to add table games. The Tribe alleges it will lose revenue because one casino will be reducing the number of its slot machines to add table games. The statute provides that the Tribe is entitled to a certain percentage of the revenue from the slot machines at the casino.

The Tribe and the State of Rhode Island have had a long-running series of legal disputes over the Tribe's efforts to establish a casino on its reservation. A Rhode Island statute provides that the Tribe is entitled to receive 0.17 percent of net terminal income from the authorized video slot machines at one of the state's two existing casinos. In 2011 and 2012, the State passed legislation allowing the two casinos to add table games ("the Casino Acts"). The Tribe filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the Casino Acts under the Rhode Island Constitution. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Superior Court found the Tribe had standing but it had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Casino Acts were unconstitutional.

The Tribe appealed the ruling that it had failed to show the Casino Acts were unconstitutional. The State appealed the ruling that the Tribe had standing. The Supreme Court declined to consolidate the appeals. It initially issued an opinion only the issue of whether the Tribe had standing.

The Court said for a litigant to demonstrate it has standing it must show "an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized...and (b) actual or imminent, not 'conjectural' or 'hypothetical.'" Generalized claims alleging purely public harm are an insufficient basis for a private lawsuit. In rare instances, the Court will overlook the standing requirement by invoking the "substantial public interest" exception to decide the merits of a case of substantial public importance.

The Court found the Tribe had demonstrated an injury in fact distinguishable from any injury suffered by the public at large. As a result of the casino being permitted to add table games, it was removing 200 video slot machines from its establishment. The Tribe said it will suffer lost revenue as a result. The Court rejected the State's argument that the lost revenue was speculative because the addition of table games may cause the casino to have more patrons and, as a result, more slot machine revenue. The Court said it was reasonable to expect that a reduction in the number of slot machines would result in a reduction in slot machine revenue and a loss of revenue to the Tribe. The Court said the Tribe need not allege that the lost revenue will be substantial, only that it be actual.

Narragansett Indian Tribe v. State of Rhode Island, No. 2012-323 (R.I. Jan. 10, 2014).

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