Tribal Casinos Outside Tribal Land? It Could Happen In California, Thanks To Favorable Federal Judge Ruling

Written By Martin Harris on April 15, 2021

Tribal casinos on non-tribal lands? It could happen in California.

A federal judge in California recently ruled that negotiators representing the state “did not negotiate in good faith” when attempting to require tribes’ compliance with various state laws and orders.

The ruling has at least one important consequence for the future of casinos in the state. It could possibly open the door to casinos being built and operated by tribes in California outside of tribal lands.

Judge agrees that state overstepped in compact negotiations

The ruling culminates a lawsuit brought against the state by five tribes in 2019.

The tribes contended that, during their latest negotiations to renew tribal-state compacts to allow the tribes to conduct casino gambling, the state made demands of the tribes that exceeded the state’s legal authority as outlined by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988.

US District Judge Anthony Ishii ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, each of which operates tribal casinos in California. They include:

  • Blue Lake Rancheria (Blue Lake Casino & Hotel, Playstation 777)
  • Chemehuev Indian Tribe (Havasu Landing Resort and Casino)
  • Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California (Chicken Ranch Casino)
  • Hopland Band of Pomo Indians (Hopland Sho-Ka-Wah Casino)
  • Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians (Robinson Rancheria Resort & Casino)

In his ruling, the judge enumerated several areas where the state had overstepped.

The state could not require tribes to enforce state court child and spousal support orders in divorce cases. Nor could California require tribes’ compliance other with state laws. These included laws concerning wages, discrimination, environmental reviews related to how lands are used and construction, and injury lawsuits on tribal property.

That’s because IGRA requires negotiations of tribal-state compacts can only concern gaming activity.

“Because these topics are not at the heart of the gaming activity and only somewhat connected,” wrote Judge Ishii, “the state should also provide ‘meaningful concessions’ in exchange for making demands on these topics.”

In other words, the state can still try to require the tribes to follow these non-gaming laws and orders. However, they must offer something in return in order to do so.

‘Meaningful concessions’ by state could allow off-reservation casinos

Those “meaningful concessions” to tribes are where the possibility of tribe-run casinos on non-tribal lands emerges.

Such depends on how far the state is willing to go in its effort to require tribes to align their own laws concerning labor, the environment and other matters with those of the state.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the tribes’ lawyer, Lester Marston, stated that even though the decision only specifically concerns the five tribes that brought the lawsuit, other tribes might seek such concessions as well in their negotiations.

There are 109 federally recognized Native American tribes in California. Marston pointed out how, of those, 64 tribes have agreements with the state that will expire in 2021 or 2022.

According to the California Gambling Control Commission, 63 tribes operate 66 casinos. Another 15 tribes have gaming compacts as well, though they do not currently operate properties.

In the ruling, Ishii followed remedial procedures outlined by IGRA. He ordered the state and five tribes to conclude their negotiations of a gaming compact within 60 days of the ruling, or provide a stipulation to extend that period.

That makes May 30 the current target date to complete the newly negotiated compacts. In other words, we could learn sooner than later just what sort of concessions the state is willing to make when negotiating its new compacts with the tribes.

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