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Long legal fight expected as both sides file appeals in bid to shut casino

Both sides filed court papers Friday in the heated battle over the legality of the Seneca Nation of Indians' casino in downtown Buffalo.

The Justice Department and lawyers for casino opponents both notified U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny that they will appeal rulings he made over the summer.

The new appeals could extend the court fight over the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino for months, if not years, legal observers said.

While that legal battle drags on, the small downtown casino is likely to remain open, unless the National Indian Gaming Commission -- or Skretny -- orders it to shut down.

"Potentially, I could see this taking 12 to 18 months, at least, to resolve the appeals," said Dan Kohane, a Buffalo business attorney who teaches at the University at Buffalo Law School and is not involved with the case. "This particular case is a complicated case, with all kinds of issues to consider. . . I've seen complicated cases take years to go through the appeals process."

The Senecas contend that the temporary casino at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street should remain in operation while the appeals go on, said Carol E. Heckman, a former U.S. magistrate judge who now serves as one of the Senecas' attorneys.

"We're happy that the U.S. government has filed its notice of appeal. This takes the forum to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which is where we thought that it should go," Heckman said.

Casino opponents, including attorney Cornelius D. Murray, disagree. Murray wants Skretny to hold the Indian Gaming Commission in contempt of court and shut down the casino as soon as possible.

By keeping the casino open, Murray contends, the Senecas and the federal government are making a "mockery" of Skretny's rulings.

In early July, Skretny found that the land purchased by the Senecas cannot be legally used for casino gambling. On Aug. 27, he reiterated that position and directed the Indian Gaming Commission to act "forthwith" with enforcement actions.

Tuesday, anti-casino lawyers asked Skretny to order the commission to "terminate" gambling at the casino within five days.

Now any action appears unlikely until at least the Nov. 11 deadline Skretny has imposed for lawyers on both sides to submit legal arguments.

Since opening in July 2007, the temporary casino has been a "huge success" that draws, on average, more than 1,000 visitors a day, said Philip J. Pantano, spokesman for the Seneca Gaming Corp.

"In its first 12 months of operation, the temporary casino generated almost $30 million in revenues," Pantano said. "Of those revenues, about $6.4 million goes to the state, and of that money, $1.6 million will go to local governments."

Although the Senecas have suspended construction, they say they still hope to build a much bigger casino and hotel complex adjacent to the temporary operation.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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