BOSTON >> A decision on whether a Massachusetts tribe can continue building a $1 billion casino south of Boston now rests with a federal judge, after casino opponents and the federal government made their case at a Monday court hearing.
Opponents are seeking to overturn the Department of the Interior's September 2015 decision to place over 300 acres in trust for the benefit of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, a decision that paved the way for the First Light casino project.
The casino, hotel and entertainment complex broke ground in Taunton in April, months after a group of local residents filed suit seeking to block the project.
Lawyers for the casino opponents argued in Boston federal court on Monday that the department used an "ungrammatical" reading of federal Indian law to reach the decision.
They pointed to the Supreme Court's 2009 ruling in Carcieri vs. Salazar, a case involving the Narragansett Indian tribe in neighboring Rhode Island. That ruling, they argued, effectively said the federal government can only take land into trust for tribes officially recognized as of June 1, 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act creating the modern tribal reservation system became law.
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans who first encountered the Pilgrims in the 1600s, became a federally recognized tribe in 2007 after decades of trying.
"They're creating ambiguity in the language that's simply not there," lawyer David Tennant said.
The Department of Justice countered that opponents are fixated on the grammatical construction of the 1934 law, rather than the legislative intent by Congress, which they suggested was not to limit land in trust rights to only those tribes officially recognized at that time.
"The words can't be viewed in a vacuum," lawyer Steven Miskinis said.
The federal government also noted in legal filings that members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe have been living on lands specifically set aside for them in their historical home base in Mashpee since colonial times.
Judge William Young is expected to issue a decision as soon as the end of the month.
David Littlefield, one of the Taunton residents leading the casino opposition, said the group was prepared to appeal if Young's decision doesn't go in its favor.
"We're optimistic. He seems like a very fair judge. He beat up our attorneys and he beat up their attorneys," he said.
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which isn't a party to the lawsuit, applauded Young for "challenging the plaintiffs oversimplified view of the federal government's authority" in a statement.
"Thankfully, the judge clearly understands the complexity of the issues involved," Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said. "We remain confident moving forward."
The tribe and its Malaysia-based partners the Genting Group have been demolishing buildings and clearing land in preparation for construction.
They say the first phase of the First Light Resort and Casino will open as soon as next summer, making the casino Massachusetts' first major resort gambling facility.
MGM is also building a resort in Springfield, and Wynn Resorts has one planned in the Boston area. Plainridge Park, a more modest slots parlor and harness racing track in Plainville, opened about a year ago.