BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick has filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking the Martha’s Vineyard-based Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe from opening a small casino on the island.
Patrick on Monday filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Judicial Court arguing that the Aquinnah ceded gambling rights in a 1983 settlement that secured tribal lands on the island.
The tribe has disputed that interpretation of the agreement.
Tribal leaders last month said they had gained federal approval to build a gambling facility that could offer high-stakes electronic bingo or poker games and some types of slot machines, but not casino-style table games.
The tribe said it planned to move ahead with converting an unfinished community center on the island into a temporary “Class II” gambling facility.
An attorney for the tribe said the governor called them earlier Monday to let them know he was filing the suit and that tribal leaders were still reviewing the document.
In the lawsuit, the Patrick administration argues that 1983 agreement bars the tribe, just at it would any other entity, from establishing a casino without a gambling license issued under state law.
Under the 2011 casino law signed by Patrick, only the newly-created Massachusetts Gaming Commission has the authority to issue the three casino and single slot parlor licenses envisioned by the law.
The Aquinnah facility would not fall under the jurisdiction of that law.
“Because the Aquinnah Tribe does not have a gaming license issued by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the Tribe may not operate a gaming establishment on its lands,” the lawsuit says.
The efforts to open a casino amounts to a breach of contract, according to the lawsuit.
The Aquinnah Tribe, however, has cited a legal opinion, dated Oct. 25, from Eric Shepard, the acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
In the letter, Shepard said the tribe’s lands on Martha’s Vineyard qualify for limited gambling under the federal law that governs tribal gaming and that the Aquinnah have sufficient legal jurisdiction over the lands.
Leaders of a second tribe — the Mashpee Wampanoag (WAHM’-pah-nahg) tribe on Cape Cod — are also hoping to open a casino, in southeastern Massachusetts.
Patrick recently signed a revised casino compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe which tribal leaders hope will win approval from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which rejected an earlier agreement reached with the state.
Martha’s Vineyard, an island just south of Cape Cod that is accessible by ferry, is a popular summer tourist destination. President Barack Obama and his family have vacationed several times on the island, as did President Bill Clinton when he was in office.
Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, tribal chairwoman, has said the Aquinnah Tribe feels a responsibility to protect the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. She said the gambling facility would blend in with the island and have an overall positive economic impact.
“What we’re looking to be is another entertainment venue for people who come to the island for their regular vacations,” Andrews-Maltais said last month when the tribe unveiled its plans.
The tribe has also said it would ask Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration to begin negotiations on a state compact that would allow the tribe to someday open a much larger Class III resort casino, either on the island or on lands taken into trust on the mainland.