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Senecas seek voice in casino suit

The Seneca Nation of Indians wants its voice to be heard in the ongoing federal court battle over its plans for a $333 million downtown Buffalo casino.

Lawyers for the tribe want District Judge William M. Skretny to let them argue in court against an anti-gambling group's efforts to block the casino project.

"It is particularly important that the [Seneca] Nation's voice be heard in this case," Seneca attorneys said in court documents. "The plaintiffs are trying to undermine the [Seneca] Nation's sovereign control over its lands."

The Senecas opened a small, temporary casino on Michigan Avenue in July. Last month, they unveiled plans for a much bigger $333 million casino and hotel, but casino opponents charge that even the temporary casino is an illegal operation that must be shut down.

Led by Citizens for a Better Buffalo, casino opponents filed their lawsuit in January 2006, followed by a second lawsuit in July of this year. The lawsuits accuse federal agencies of illegally granting the Senecas permission to build a Buffalo casino.

So far, attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department have been fighting in Skretny's court against attorneys for casino opponents.

The Senecas now want Skretny to let them join in the legal argument. Last week, they filed a 61-page request asking to be heard as a "friend of the court."

Skretny has given the Justice Department and casino opponents until Dec. 21 to respond to the Senecas' request.

The key question in the federal case is whether the Michigan Avenue land that the Senecas purchased in 2005 can legally be considered sovereign Seneca territory. According to casino opponents, the Senecas can only operate casinos on their own sovereign tribal land.

Casino opponents insist that the Buffalo property is not sovereign Seneca land, and that the U.S. Indian Gaming Commission was wrong when it decided to allow the Senecas to open a casino there.

In their court papers, the Senecas argue that treaties, federal law, state law and past court rulings show that the federal agency acted properly.

"[We] will continue to aggressively challenge anyone who attempts to limit or misinterpret our tribal sovereignty for their own gain or agenda," Seneca President Maurice A. John Sr. said late Thursday.

The Seneca Nation's attorneys include Robert Odawi Porter, Christopher Karns, Riyaz A. Kanji and Carol E. Heckman, a former U.S. magistrate judge in Buffalo.

The Senecas have said they plan to open their expanded casino and new hotel in 2010.

With gaming operations in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo, the Senecas say they already have a $2 billion economy that employs more than 6,500 people.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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