Federal judge dismisses VictoryLand lawsuit, sanctions plaintiffs’ attorney

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The casino at VictoryLand in Shorter.  A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that claimed the closing of the casino by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange violated the voting rights of Macon County residents, and has sanctioned the plaintiffs' attorney. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

The casino at VictoryLand in Shorter. A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that claimed the closing of the casino by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange violated the voting rights of Macon County residents, and has sanctioned the plaintiffs’ attorney. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

A federal judge Monday dismissed a lawsuit that alleged that a raid of VictoryLand violated the voting rights of residents of Macon County, and ordered the attorney who represented Macon County officials in the suit to reimburse the state’s legal costs.

In a 52-page decision, Chief U.S. District Judge William Keith Watkins said that the plaintiffs had mistaken the state’s enforcement of gambling laws with federally protected voting rights.

“None of Defendants’ ‘actions’ about which Plaintiffs complain has to do with voting or an election,” Watkins wrote. “The complained-of actions may reveal Plaintiffs’ staunch policy disagreement with how Defendants are interpreting and enforcing Alabama’s anti-gambling laws, in particular, against VictoryLand, but that is all.”

Watkins also found that the lawsuit was frivolous, and ordered Donald LaRoche, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, to reimburse Alabama’s legal costs.

The lawsuit, filed in April, said that state officials’ actions against the VictoryLand casino had undermined a 2003 vote allowing charity bingo in Macon County, the legal basis for electronic bingo at the facility. Strange’s office, which contends that electronic bingo fails to meet a six-part bingo definition established by the Alabama Supreme Court in a 2009 case, served a warrant on VictoryLand last February and seized 1,600 electronic bingo machines from the facility.

The plaintiffs, including Tuskegee mayor Johnny Ford; Macon County Commission chair Louis Maxwell and Macon County Board of Education president Theodore Samuel, argued that Strange’s actions “nullified and disregarded their lawfully cast votes” for bingo, and had violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the Thirteen, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by denying Macon County voters “the ability to choose by constitutional amendment the laws and means of their enforcement in their own counties.”

Watkins dismissed all of the claims, saying that nothing alleged by the plaintiffs had undermined their fundamental right to vote.

“The Complaint, despite its labels, has nothing to do with the infringement of voting rights,” Watkins wrote. Instead, the Complaint attempts to revive a private business offering electronic bingo that has been deemed illegal by the highest court in Alabama, the highest law enforcement official in Alabama, and the chief executive officer of Alabama, its Governor.”

The judge also found that LaRoche “should have been aware of the Complaint’s frivolousness” before filing.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange praised the ruling in a statement.

“I have always said that Mayor Ford’s lawsuit was a legally frivolous publicity stunt, and now the federal court has agreed,” the statement said. “I am especially grateful that Mr. Ford’s attorney will be required to reimburse the State for the time it took our attorneys to respond to his frivolous allegations.”

LaRoche, based in Massachusetts, said in a phone interview Monday evening he was “obviously disappointed with the outcome of the case,” saying the economic impact of the VictoryLand closing was severe.

“What has gone on with VictoryLand is the loss of jobs, the loss of jobs to the people of Macon County,” he said.

Watkins asked Strange to submit an application for “reasonable attorney’s fees and other expenses” by Jan. 31; it was not clear how much those might be.

LaRoche said he still needed to review Watkins decision, but he was “obviously not going to be happy” regarding the sanctions.

– posted by Brian Lyman (updated at 5:55 p.m.)

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