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The Johnson Act and Challenges to Class II Gaming:

Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) 1988, there are three distinct classifications of gambling conduct on tribal soil. Class I games are generally of little economic value to the tribes operating gaming establishments; are associated with intracultural ceremonies. Class I games are unregulated by any nontribal institution (p. 8). In contrast, Class II games fall within the range of bingo and associated games (tip jarspull tabs, and card games) (p.3). However, any banking card games such as Blackjack and Baccarat fall outside of the category of Class II gaming along with traditional casino-style games such as slot machines (p.4). Class II games are free of state and federal regulation providing the form of gambling is not prohibited (p.1341). Pursuant to IGRA, the tribe establishes local ordinances governing the operation of Class II gambling. All local regulations need to be approved by National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) (p.1341). The final class of tribal gaming is Class III, including banked card games and traditional casino games (p.4). Per IGRA, the tribe must enact a tribal-state compact to provide Class III gaming services (p.305). Arguably, games such as slot machines are significantly more profitable than Class II games [1].

Over the years, some controversy has surfaced regarding what games fall under the umbrella of Class II games. Despite IGRA acting as a well-intentioned compromise, providing the tribes with the right to pursue gaming enterprises and balancing for safeguarding tribal gaming from criminal influences (p.2), it failed to foresee technical advances in the gaming industry. By the 1990s, digital aides to accompany Class II games such as bingo and pull-tab were devised, making them superficially similar to Class III games such as slot machines and video Blackjack. After years of length, court battles it electronic versions of Class II games are now recognized as distinct from Class III forms of gambling. Class III games incur substantial transaction costs of negotiations with the state the tribal territory resides within.

The attempt to prohibit electronic variations of Class II games, such as bingo, is justified by the Johnson Act. This law enacted before IGRA banned the use of gambling devices in establishments in the Indian country. The Johnson Act was soon challenged in the courts; by various tribes providing Class II gaming services. One prominent case was Citizen Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Oklahoma v. Green, 995F.2d 179, 179 (10th Cir. 1993). The Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision that video lottery terminals would not apply to the IGRA waiver of the Johnson Act since Oklahoma outright bans such gambling devices. The court sided with the state, but it did open the door for video pull-tab and bingo terminals by making such an exemption contingent on the state loosening restrictions on these actives. After the Citizen Band ruling, Oklahoma passed the Amusement and Carnival Games Act, this liberalized gaming in Oklahoma (p.7). Unfortunately, the tribes struggled to negotiate a compact much beyond expanding to off-track horse racing (p.8). The tribes were still languishing in a purgatorial dead-end from the pressure of the social conservatives of Oklahoma (p.8). The East Shawnee Tribe “…developed a paper pull-tab game that utilized an electronic reader to scan paper pull-tabs and display an image on a video screen when the machine dispenses the paper pull-tab..” (p.9). The tribe circumvented their gaming commission and requested a ruling from the CFR court. The CFR’s favorable ruling did not dissuade the U.S. Attorney Lewis of the Northern district from viewing “…such devices as an unlawful class III electromechanical facsimile of a pull tab game..” (p.9). Subsequently, the District Court ruled that this variant of an electron pull-tab game was a Class III game (p.10). The U.S. Attorney Lewis ignored the ruling raided the tribe’s casino. The East Shawnee and the government came to a settlement dismissing the charges and returning all seized funds (p.10).

In 1996, the NIGC chairman decided that the “..electronically broadcasted bingo game…” MegaMania was a Class II game (p.10). Then in 1997, the DOJ and Oklahoma tribal leaders met to discuss the limits of electronic bingo games while the NIGC concurrently expanded the list of electronically assisted games that fell within the Class III category (p.10-11). Lewis ignored this decision and organized a raid on casinos owned by the Seneca-Cayug and Cherokee Nation. Lewis also went so far as to pursue a case against MegaMania devices used at tribal establishments in California (p.11). Resulting in United States v. 103 Electronic Gaming Devices, No. 98-1984-CRB, 1998 WL 827586 at *10 (N.D. Cal. 1998). The Ninth Circuit threw Lewis’s case out citing that the interconnected terminals were an aide and therefore was Johnson Act compliant. After several years of appellate courts finding that IGRA permits Class II games to utilize electron aides, NIGC made the 2002 amendment to IGRA formally codifying this conclusion (p.12).

The Obvious Prisoner’s Dilemma:

The long and drawn-out battle over the classification of tribal-hosted electronic-aided bingo games is a clear example of how the interests of bureaucratic agencies do not always align. Bureaus function under the auspices of the same department, compete for funding and institutional support. This situation demonstrates a scenario where orthogonal agencies are at odds; due to having diametrical incentives structures. The NIGC was intended to operate with constrained autonomy when IGRA was first enacted. But NIGC independence is significantly hampered by the shared regulatory responsibility dispersed between the agency, the Department of the Interior, and the DOJ (p.305-306). As is evident from the previously described struggles for tribes in Oklahoma, the relationship between the NIGC and the DOJ is contentious.

Prisoner’s Dilemma exists because the DOJ exists to offensively combat illegal activities associated with improper operation of gaming facilities (p.323). Simultaneously, NIGC solely exists to provide an on-ramp for tribes to seek liberalization of gaming for economic development (p.323-324). Neither of the incentives structures is compatible; this can explain the ample examples of defection on the part of both parties. The NIGC actively helps the tribes by expanding the number of games utilizing electronic aides regulated as Class II (fewer legal hurdles). In contrast, the DOJ enforces the gaming laws, even if that means taking overly broad or narrow interpretations of the current statutory code. Both government entities could have coordinated mutual compromises versus adversarial strategies for managing tribal gaming regulations. This lack of consensus generated a multilayered cat-and-mouse game between the NIGC/tribes and the DOJ.

The Distal Prisoner’s Dilemma:

The less conspicuous Prisoner’s Dilemma is an intertemporal one involving one set of congressional representatives versus another. The Johnson Act and IGRA are incompatible pieces of legislation that generate intricate policy conflicts (p.315-318). Since the two laws are incongruent, IGRA is a defection from the previous Johnson Act. In IGRA, it is implied before the 2002 amendments that the electronic aides were exempt; it was not clear enough to dispel any controversy. Either clarification of the exemption in the original law or having it match more closely to the criteria of the Johnson Act would have been a “cooperative strategy”.

Distal Prisoner’s Dilemma is an indirect mutual defection that engenders poor outcomes. The defections are generally temporally stratified and are not an instantaneously implemented noncooperative strategy. Either through congress’s ignorance of the law or zealotry to regulate tribal gaming, they are working against their own previously established legislation.

2 thoughts on “Prisoner’s Dilemma- IX: The Johnson Act v.s. IGRA (The Distal Prisoner’s Dilemma)

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