POPE COUNTY, Ark. — A Pope County circuit judge declared a voter-approved ordinance as unconstitutional that would have required an election before allowing a casino to be approved.

Circuit Court Judge Bill Pearson dismissed or struck down allegations by the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County in a Tuesday morning hearing. 

"I'm actually really shocked and disappointed," said Anna Stiritz, a lawyer and spokesperson for the anti-casino group.

It was a bad 18 hours for those opposed to the casino plans after the quorum court, with an eye on the court case, repealed it Monday night. That was the shot. Judge Pearson provided the chaser on Tuesday morning.

"We're ecstatic. We're very excited and hopefully, now we'll be able to move forward," was the opposite reaction from Kelly Jett the community organizer whose Facebook group Pope County Majority changed minds in the months after the 2019 election.

"I think PCM basically just became a voice for those who weren't being heard," she said after the hearing. "We are a voice for those who were uninformed and misinformed."

Her group has more than 7,000 followers and responded to a challenge from a once-skeptical county judge Ben Cross. He went on to lend his backing to the Legends Casino plan put forward by the Cherokee Nation.

Stiritz says the 12,000 voters who spoke last year should still be heard despite the wording of the constitutional amendment that paved the way for casinos in the state.

"Amendment 100 is carefully crafted," Stiritz said. "It was written by casino interests, paid to get through the ballot box by casino interests and they did their very best to make sure that they wrote the rules and enforced them on everybody."

The Tuesday lawsuit is one of at least three legal or governmental hurdles to getting a casino approved. There's Gulfside Casino with a lawsuit against the state racing commission and armed with an approval letter from the previous county judge. The City of Russellville wants to be dealt back in after the county moved forward with the Cherokee. They backed a proposal from Elite Management.

There's still lots of cards to deal but Legends has the biggest stack and plenty of backing.

"We're just excited to move forward," Jett said. "We're just excited for the progress and we can't wait for them to build it."

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