Court of Appeals hears suit against casinos - Saturday 12th of March 2005

ALBANY - Opponents of a 2001 gambling expansion law urged the state's highest court Monday to shut down the Seneca ation's two casinos in Western New York as well as new gambling halls at Fairgrounds Gaming & Raceway and other racetracks in the state.

The request came during oral arguments before the Court of Appeals by gambling opponents in their lawsuit against Gov. George E. Pataki, targeting the law that has led to the most sweeping expansion of gambling in state history.

Those who brought the suit, including one elected official and religious leaders from Western New York, seek to halt the expansion and to force the Senecas to close their casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca, with the help of a federal Indian gambling agency.

Cornelius Murray, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the judges Monday that the Senecas understood the legal risks they were taking by opening the casinos before the lawsuit was decided. He said the Senecas took a "damn the torpedoes" attitude.

Murray said the Senecas agreed to a casino compact with Pataki, aware that the 2001 law might later be rejected by the courts.

"They went into the compacting process with their eyes wide open," the lawyer told the judges.

Critics believe the governor and Legislature should have begun a constitutional amendment process, involving voters, on casino gambling. Pataki's lawyers have long rejected the procedure.

Closing down a casino run by a tribal government would face enormous legal and political hurdles, though there is a precedent in other states. "Should the court rule in our behalf, I believe casino gambling in New York would be closed down until such time voters are given an opportunity to sanction it," said Assemblyman William Parment, D-Jamestown, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The 2001 law has been upheld at lower level courts, though an appellate division last year did strike down a provision that permits racetracks to share a portion of proceeds from video lottery terminals with horse owners and breeding funds. Four tracks have VLTs, which look and sound like slot machines, including Fairgrounds and Finger Lakes.

The state has argued the Indian casino provision is legal because, among other things, federal law permits states to enter into casino ompacts with Indian tribes and New York already permits Las Vegas-style gambling by charitable groups.

But critics said the State Constitution clearly forbids commercial gambling ventures such as the Seneca casinos.

The federal law permitting states to enter into casino deals with tribes "didn't suspend our state constitution," Murray argued.

The court will likely issue a decision in about two months.

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