A federal court ruling in favor of five California gaming tribes will allow casino plans to move forward.
The state had tried to seek environmental concessions from the tribes during negotiations to renew their contracts to operate Las Vegas-style casinos.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals said the state violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). It did so by demanding nearly 30 pages worth of sprawling environmental regulations. The state also sought tort and family law changes with no direct relation to gaming activities.
Moreover, the state aimed to impose “significant aspects” of the California Environmental Quality Act upon the tribes. It also aimed to give states and local government agencies an apparent veto over tribal projects, wrote Circuit Judge Daniel Bress in the 2-1 decision.
“Through its negotiating demands, California effectively sought to use the (casino) contracting process as leverage to impose its general policy objectives on the tribes, which a state may not do.”
IGRA protects tribes in negotiations, court rules
Many welcomed the decision, including Les Marston, who represents Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians and four other tribes. He called the decision “a literal game-changer” and “the most favorable interpretation” of pivotal IGRA provisions since the law’s ratification in 1988.
According to IGRA, a tribe seeking to operate a Vegas-style casino is required to negotiate a contract with the state first. This contract is known as a gaming compact.
Congress, however, had the foresight to limit the scope of negotiations to just seven categories. They include a catch-all provision that would contain subjects directly related to the operation of gaming activities.
California contends that the catch-all provision authorizes it to make said changes. While the changes might affect casino properties generally, the appeals court ruled the changes had no direct connection to gaming activity.
Ball now back in California’s court
It’s up to the state of California whether it wishes to seek further review on the matter. Should it decide to go ahead without review, then negotiations will begin anew with a court-appointed mediator.
When asked for remarks from Gov. Gavin Newsom on the ruling, a spokeswoman for Newsom had no immediate comment. The state’s lawyers also remained tight-lipped.
The Chicken Ranch Rancheria, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Blue Lake Rancheria, Hopland Band of Pomo Indians and Robinson Rancheria all have gaming compacts with the state which are due to run out in 2023.
Renewal negotiations that started in 2014 broke down five years later due to substantive disagreements. Tribes then sued the state in California Eastern District Court in Fresno. The presiding judge determined that the state violated IGRA by failing to negotiate in good faith. That was partly because it had offered the tribes no meaningful concessions in exchange for new environmental demands.
Two Circuit judges on the appeals court, Bress and Kim McLane, went so far as to declare that any offered concessions at that point would still not cure an unlawful demand. The third judge, Patrick Bumatay, dissented.
The court case is Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, et al., v. State of California and Gov. Newsom, No. 21-15751.