Tribal Gaming Chair Pens Criticism Of California Card Rooms

Written By Dan Holmes on October 20, 2023
Photo of a poker dealer on a story about a California tribal leader writing a column against card rooms in the state.

The chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association has penned a detailed criticism of commercially operated card rooms in the state, pointing out the alleged unconstitutionality of the operations.

In an op-ed for Tribal Gaming and Hospitality, James Siva calls for formal rulings from California courts on whether “certain controlled games operated by California card clubs are banking card games that violate California law and infringe upon tribal exclusive gaming rights.”

At stake is whether the commercial card rooms, which have grown from informal games in local public venues into full-fledged multi-table poker and other casino-style games, violate state law that grants exclusive gaming rights to tribal nations.

Are card rooms in California legal?

There are 85 California card rooms, according to the California Gambling Control Commission. They range in size from small, intimate rooms to large, casino-like facilities housing dozens of tables.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), Siva points out, has endorsed CA Senate Bill 549, which was written by state Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat from Fullerton. Most significantly, SB 549 would allow tribes to sue commercial card rooms in state courts as to their legality.

The question of legality remains in limbo. The state has not taken any action toward shutting down card rooms. And it has not allowed lawsuits from tribes opposed to their operation.

Siva writes that the courts may not provide the desired outcome in the fall update newsletter.

“[G]oing into a courtroom is a considerable risk for tribes, as there is no guarantee there would be a judgment in their favor.”

In recent years, tribal nations and organizations have strongly lobbied lawmakers in Sacramento. They seek clarity on their exclusivity of casino gaming as card rooms add more casino-type games like blackjack and baccarat.

An attorney for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in Apline, Tuari Bigknife, told a Assembly Judiciary Committee in July that card room operators should be just as eager for SB 549 to pass as tribes are.

“[I]f [commercial gaming interests] believe that these games are legal, they should be eager to prove it in court.”

SB 549 may not receive a vote in Senate

The state Judiciary Committee passed SB 549 in July, but legislative leaders have not brought the bill to a vote. Its future remains in doubt.

That surprises Siva.

Committee members voiced support for SB 549 in the July hearing, Siva writes, and “most … indicated at least some sentiment in favor of the commercial interests in their comments during the hearing …” He goes on to assert that Judiciary Committee members “seemed to be swayed by the strength of the tribal argument and abstained from voting on the bill.”

In the past, California courts have thrown out cases brought by tribal nations against card rooms. Meanwhile, regulators in the state are drafting rules for card rooms, determining which games they can and cannot offer.

Courts might have to decide legality of card rooms

Card rooms are very popular in some communities. They boost economies and provide jobs, especially in under-served municipalities in California.

State leaders and lawmakers refuse to pass laws either recognizing the legality of card rooms in California or condemning them. So, that leaves courts with the task of deciding whether they operate legally in the state. SB 549 might be the avenue for that to happen.

Tribes, led by Siva and others, argue that the California Constitution permits gaming only on casino lands. They seek their day in court to prove that.

Lawmakers blocking a Senate vote of SB 549, however, may be trying to protect card rooms, knowing they exist on thin ice legally.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is a contributor for PlayCA with plenty of experience under his belt. Dan has written three books about sports and previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He also has extensive experience covering the launch of sports betting in other states, including Ohio, Massachusetts and Maryland. Currently, Dan is residing in Michigan with his family.

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