State News

Appellate judges weigh fairness of video poker ban

Posted October 14, 2009 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2009 7:15 p.m. EDT

— An attorney for an amusement machine vendor said Wednesday that North Carolina lacks a consistent public policy when it allows Cherokee Indians to have video poker but bans the machines everywhere else.

Lawyers for the state and the vendor traded arguments before the state Court of Appeals over the legality of a 2006 state law that made machines illegal except on the Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning overturned the law in February, saying the exemption for the Cherokees violated the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act..

Gaming vendor Chase Brooks said after Wednesday's court hearing that the state should apply the same rules to everyone.

"It ought to be applied evenly across the state to give all these businessmen an opportunity for that local revenue," Brooks said.

In addition to the lawsuit, the video poker industry has lobbied for legislation that would bring the machines back to North Carolina by cutting the state in on tax revenue that could be collected by regulating video poker.

Special Deputy Attorney General Mark Davis argued Wednesday that the ban is legal and consistent with the federal gambling act. Federal law gives the Cherokees sovereignty, and a state compact with the Cherokees protects their gaming rights on the reservation.

The three-member appellate panel peppered Hugh Stevens, the attorney for video poker vendors, over the Indian gambling law, but Stevens said the case boils down to a matter of fairness.

"The legislature has now said that this behavior is criminal behavior for everyone in North Carolina except for this Indian tribe. To me, that brings into play a fundamental question of what is the public policy," Stevens said.

"I think the legislature settled (the public policy question) when they made the law that it's illegal to have video poker outside the Indian reservation," Cumberland County Sheriff Earl "Moose" Butler said after the court hearing.

Butler was among several sheriffs to attend the hearing. Law enforcement officers battled illegal payouts to video poker players for years before the machines were banned.

"We were up here today to put a face to it because of the tragedies and things that go on behind video poker," Edgecombe County Sheriff James Knight said.

"We just want to get this settled once and for all as sheriffs that it's illegal in the state of North Carolina to have these machines," Butler said.

Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks warned that opening the door to games elsewhere would cause economic harm to the tribe and the region near the reservation.

"Eighty-two percent of our employees are non-members of the tribe. So, there's a vested interest in western North Carolina on this particular issue," Hicks said.

It could be weeks or months before the judges rule.