Indian Tribal Court Justice?

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff
March 24, 2002

Jackpot loser fights casino
Says jackpot was wrongfully denied him by tribal court

When he talks about that night at Foxwoods Casino and Resort in September 1998, Vasilios Milios seems suddenly transformed. He’s no longer the 67-year-old patriarch, owner of Billy’s Burgorama and poster child for a generation of Greek immigrants who never took vacations, but a driven man with hard eyes energized by rage.

With steely fury, Milios bitterly recalls the day the jackpot of a lifetime crept tantalizingly close to his reach at a Foxwoods poker table, only to be yanked away by managers he said doctored a video to disqualify him from taking his winnings.

But those managers say that Milios neglected a simple but crucial step for any poker player – to make his final bet – and the winning hand was disallowed.

For Milios, the brief taste of victory, and the sense of justice denied, has motivated him in the four-year court fight he has pursued with the same passion reserved for the one pleasure and vice he allows himself in his golden years: Caribbean stud poker.

His legal battle, which has now moved into federal court in Boston, has become a quest not only for a $158,000 jackpot, but a challenge to the legitimacy of the tribal court system, which has sided with the casino in denying Milios his winnings. At issue is the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, which granted ”sovereign immunity” to Indian reservations and allowed them to set up their own legal systems free of government interference.

Milios and his attorney, Ed Scallon, appealed to the top of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal court system, losing all the way. Now they’ve filed suit in US District Court in Boston, which they hope could force a US Supreme Court ruling that would overturn existing legal precedent protecting sovereign Indian tribal courts.

”Slavery was legal until somebody fought against it,” Scallon said, attacking the tribal gaming commissions and courts, charging them with disregarding basic due process rights guaranteed by the 1968 law.

Federal law allows Indian tribes to set up their own courts and gaming commissions to hear noncriminal cases on reservations. Tribal appeals courts have final say in all matters (except for charges of unjust imprisonment) and parties cannot appeal rulings to federal or state courts.

The Mashantucket Pequots, a tribe of about 650 that runs the Connecticut resort and casino, founded its own court and body of law in 1992 to keep pace with booming business at Foxwoods.

A gaming commission, whose decisions are appealed to an executive officer, hears all gambling cases. All other legal matters go before a tribal court in a structure built around a pair of trailers. The court hears mostly employment cases from casino personnel, tort claims from patrons, and debt collection cases filed by the casino against gamblers who default on payments. The tribe has hired an attorney as a full-time trial judge, and contracts with other attorneys and retired judges to hear cases and appeals.

Critics say the quality of tribal courts can vary greatly from tribe to tribe, and that visitors to reservations, especially gamblers, have no idea they are setting foot in a sovereign nation with a separate and independent legal system.

Over the last decade, federal grants have helped many tribes revamp their legal structures in answer to accusations of uneven quality, arising from decisions like a Montana tribe’s $250 million award against Burlington Northern Railroad for a 1993 train-car collision that killed three people. The award was later reduced.

”There is a certain amount of variability,” said Frank R. Pommersheim, a law professor at the University of South Dakota and a part-time tribal judge. ”Over the last 25 years, in tribal courts there are more and more law-trained judges, and more and more of them are tribal members.”

The US Supreme Court, in a landmark 1978 ruling, Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, upheld Indian tribes that had invoked sovereign immunity to fend off lawsuits from non-Indians.

Milios will have a hard time, UCLA law professor and Native American legal analyst Carole Goldberg said. ”Just finding you don’t like how justice is administered in a particular reservation is not enough,” she said. ”Unless he’s far more clever than I imagine, he’ll have a problem.”

All this has left Milios and his family decidedly puzzled. ”You mean to say they can do whatever they want?” Milios asked his lawyer as the two strategize about his case at the family diner in Oxford.

Milios came to Massachusetts from Greece in 1956, serving in the US Army and working a variety of service jobs before founding Billy’s Burgorama. He has raised two sons, led the Founders Day parade in his hometown, and has campaigned for Democratic candidates, especially former governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Milios’s son George, an insurance agent who lives nearby, said his parents never wasted time or money on fun while he was growing up. About five years ago, with enough money to treat himself to some pleasure, Vasilios Milios discovered his passion for gambling just as Foxwoods expanded its casino a stone’s throw down Interstate 395.

He still goes about twice a week, although since the lost jackpot he refuses to patronize Foxwoods and instead gambles at Mohegan Sun.

”People who come to Foxwoods as a destination know they’re coming to a different place,” Mashantucket Pequot staff attorney Patrice Kunesh said. Still, there are no pamphlets or signs advising patrons that different legal codes apply. More than 40,000 people gamble at Foxwoods on an average day, according to the casino.

”I think it’s a tremendous court,” Kunesh said. ”I don’t think there’s a question of legitimacy.”

Scallon, 52, disagrees. A retired Providence police officer, he passed the bar in 1995 and embarked on a personal crusade against what he sees as weak or corrupt tribal legal systems. He calls the gaming commission he experienced a ”kangaroo court” inextricably bound to the casino management.

That kind of attitude worries people like Alex Skibine, a law professor at the University of Utah. ”You are always going to be able to find a bad apple,” Skibine said. ”Do you have to overhaul the whole system for that one guy?”

The Supreme Court, he warned, could revert to the ”unhealthy” practice that existed before the 1978 decision upholding tribal sovereign immunity, in which federal courts ruled on internal tribal political elections and Indian disputes of a highly cultural nature, he said.

For his part, Milios has learned more than he ever expected about different justice systems. What still rankles, though, is the memory of Sept. 26, 1998, when after hours of playing poker he looked at his hand shortly after 10:40, and saw something he hardly believed: a royal flush in hearts.

The euphoria and hand-slapping ended abruptly when casino officials told Milios he had forgotten to enter a bet on the winning round.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.