California Crossed the Line in Tribal Casino Compact Negotiations, Says Federal Judge

Posted on: April 6, 2021, 08:00h. 

Last updated on: April 6, 2021, 10:12h.

The state of California overstepped the mark during casino compact negotiations by demanding tribal enforcement of state laws, a federal judge in Fresno has ruled.

California tribes
With dozens of compacts up for renegotiation, California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom (pictured) is unlikely to give concessions to the tribes lightly. (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The San Francisco Chronicle reports US District Judge Anthony Ishii said the state would have to give tribes “meaningful concessions” if it wanted them to comply with California laws. That could mean granting them the right to build casinos outside their reservations.

Federally recognized tribes can offer Class II gaming, such as bingo and poker, on their sovereign reservations under federal law without the blessing of the state. Class III, or Las Vegas-style casino gaming, is a legally more complex issue, and usually requires a compact to be negotiated between a tribe and the state.

Beyond the Scope of IGRA

In California, under the terms of their compacts, the state’s 109 federally recognized tribes have a monopoly on Class III gaming. That’s in return for sharing gaming revenues with the state. But these compacts agreements must be periodically renegotiated.

In 2019, after five years of fruitless talks with the Governor’s Office, five tribes — the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, the Blue Lake Rancheria, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, and the Robinson Rancheria — sued the state because they didn’t like the route negotiations were taking.

The tribes complained the state’s demands went beyond the scope of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 1988 (IGRA). This was the bill that codified Native American gaming regulations and protects tribes’ rights to pursue gaming as a means of economic development.  

The state sought tribal compliance with laws on a wide range of issues, including wages, discrimination, environmental review of land use and construction projects, and whether tribes can be sued for damages for injuries that occur on their reservations.

Tribes’ Right to Enact Own Laws

In a ruling filed last Wednesday, Ishii said compact negotiations should be limited to matters relating to gaming on reservations. That would take the focus off issues that would impact tribal sovereignty and self-governance.

According to Lester Marston, a lawyer for the tribes, if those things must be part of the conversation, then the state must offer more in return, and this could include off-reservation gambling expansion.

But with 64 compacts due to expire over the next 18 months and up for renegotiation, Governor Gavin Newsom is unlikely to agree lightly to any such concession.

Marston told the Chronicle this week that the tribes have their own labor laws governing things like discrimination. He added it is their “right under federal law to form governments on reservations and enact their own laws.”

“State laws stop at the reservation border,” he said.