Wilton Rancheria Tribe Survives Elk Grove Casino Challenge, Judge Tosses Suit

Posted on: March 3, 2018, 05:00h. 

Last updated on: March 3, 2018, 04:43h.

A federal judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit that sought to challenge the Wilton Rancheria tribe’s long quest to build a casino in Elk Grove, California.

Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock, chairman of the Wilton Rancheria
Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock, chairman of the Wilton Rancheria, praised a federal judge’s decision to dismiss a legal challenge questioning the tribe’s sovereignty over its lands. The tribe moves a step closer to building a 400 million casino in Elk Grove. (Image: egcitizen.com)

The suit had questioned the legitimacy of a decision to restore the tribe’s lands in Wilton in the dying moments of the Obama administration, just hours before Trump’s inauguration.

The Wilton Rancheria lost its federal recognition in 1958, a status it regained in only 2009 after decades of campaigning.

But casino opponents calling themselves “Stand Up for California” (SUFC) claimed that Larry Roberts, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 when he took that last-minute decision to place the lands into trust for the tribe in January 2017

The act forbids “inferior [subordinate] officers from performing a function or duty reserved by statute or regulation to an office requiring nomination with advice and consent.”

Exceptional Circumstances  

But Judge Trevor McFadden ruled that the unusual circumstances brought about by the transition of power gave Roberts authority to issue the decision.

This case involves a uniquely Washingtonian question: when can a federal employee act in the place of an absent agency or unit head?” McFadden wrote. “This issue becomes acute during presidential transitions, when thousands of senior political appointees exit the government, often leaving their positions vacant for months or even years.”

The ruling represents a major milestone for the tribe, among which the unemployment rate is more than 60 percent and the average income falls well below the poverty line. With financial partner Boyd Gaming, the tribe plans to build the casino resort on 36 acres within the site of an unfinished shopping mall at the south end of Elk Grove.

It would boast a 110,000 square feet of gaming floor, a 302-room hotel tower, restaurants, a spa, and the area’s largest convention space outside of downtown Sacramento.

Not Over Yet

“We are grateful to the United States government for defending and upholding their federal trust responsibility to our tribe and for protecting our inherent right to have tribal trust lands, not only for now, but for generations to come,” Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock said in an official statement.

But SUFC is not done yet. The group plans to refile their complaint later this month, claiming the project breaches other federal laws, including the Indian Reorganization Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“There are a multitude of federal laws that apply to one project,” SUFC director Carol Schmidt told the Sacramento Bee. “There’s some really serious issues yet.”