The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has once again won the legal right to keep open its new Prairie Flower casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, so Omahans will still have an option to play slot-style machines without crossing the Missouri River.

In a written decision issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose of the Southern District of Iowa rejected arguments by the City of Council Bluffs and the States of Nebraska and Iowa that she had made a mistake by not forcing the National Indian Gaming Commission — an agency within the Department of the Interior charged with regulating gambling on Indian lands — to shut down the casino in response to a ruling in March.

The three governments have argued that the National Indian Gaming Commission shouldn’t have permitted the Poncas to build in Carter Lake because the 4.8-acre parcel purchased by the tribe in 1999 wasn’t part of their historical “restored lands.” They also said the tribe violated a 2002 pledge its lawyer allegedly made to Council Bluffs that the property would be used for a medical clinic, not a casino.

The tribe has argued that the Carter Lake land does qualify as restored lands and that the 2002 agreement wasn’t authorized by the Tribal Council.

The legal fight dates to 2007, when the three governments challenged the commission’s decision allowing the Poncas to build the casino in the municipality two miles north of downtown Omaha. That legal challenge dragged on for 10 years and resulted in the commission voting again to approve the casino.

Iowa, Nebraska and Council Bluffs sued again. Armed with the gaming commission’s approval, the tribe opened the Prairie Flower on Nov. 1, 2018.

Rose’s March decision dismissed requests from both sides for a summary judgment in their favor but directed the commission to reconsider its earlier decision, factoring in the purported 2002 agreement between the Ponca Tribe’s attorney and Council Bluffs.

Attorneys for the three governments had wanted the judge to declare that her order had vacated the commission’s 2017 ruling, which probably would have required the casino to shut down as litigation dragged on.

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In April the commission once again approved the casino, this time explicitly stating that it had considered the 2002 agreement.

Rose said she didn’t vacate the ruling because the large disruption shutting down the casino would have created for the tribe outweighed what she described as “minimal defects” in the commission’s decision.

This latest legal victory prompted Larry Wright Jr., the tribe’s chairman, to call on the three governments to end their long legal battle to prevent the Poncas from building the casino.

“We respectfully ask the plaintiffs to end their legal crusade against our Tribe, respect the District Court’s ruling ... and our right to build a casino and conduct gaming on our sovereign land in Carter Lake,” Wright said in a statement issued by the tribe. “It’s time to put the lawsuits behind us and focus on our shared interest of bringing more economic growth the area.”

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