SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A suit filed in federal district court in Sacramento by four Bay Area card clubs is seen as a direct challenge to Proposition 1A, the voter-approved measure that added an amendment to the California state constitution legalizing Indian gaming.
The case specifically targets the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians who recently received the right to buy an old card club in San Pablo to be converted into a tribal casino. The suit alleges that Proposition 1A gives American Indians exclusive rights to operate casinos and therefore violates the federal equal protection guarantees.
Tribal sources say card clubs are mistaken in thinking tribal governments are solely an ethnic group. They point out that under the United States Constitution, tribes are sovereign governments and liken the casinos to state-run lotteries.
The card clubs claim the "spirit" of Proposition 1A was violated when Lytton attempted to buy the card club, in an urban area some 50 miles from their land holdings. They say Proposition 1A only called for limited gaming on pre-existing Indian-held lands.
The San Pablo land acquisition by the Lytton tribe was given a go ahead when Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., inserted three sentences into the more than 150-page Omnibus Indian Advancement Act during the closing days of the last session of Congress. The card clubs saw the amendment as a sneaky way to threaten their interests.
Anthony Cohen, a tribal attorney, says there was no backroom deal. He says that the California Environmental Quality Act held two separate public hearings on the issue.
Another issue is that the card clubs fear a loss of patronage to the larger casinos. A spokesman for Artichoke Joe's, one of the litigants, says that some of these clubs have been in business for 90 years and are not equipped to compete with the casinos which the clubs think have an unfair business advantage. They say the casinos are legally allowed to offer a wider variety of games that does not allow the card clubs to be competitive.
"The main issue is that these folks want to preserve their business. They've been there a long time and want to be there longer," says the spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous.
Representatives of the tribes claim the card clubs fear the potential competition and are just expressing frustration over the new market for gaming. Cohen says that the card rooms should not feel threatened because they attract a very different type of clientele.
"Most card clubs are small, homey neighborhood places that have people who've been coming to these places for years. I don't think that the type of people who go to these clubs are the same as those who would want to play slot machines," Cohen says.
Tribal representatives say they, as sovereign nations, are just getting back a little of what they lost over the last several hundred years of American history.
In addition to Artichoke Joe's the plaintiffs include California Grand Casino, Lucky Chances Inc., Sacramento Consolidated Charities and Fairfield Youth Foundation. The charities joined the suit because they felt the casinos posed a threat to their bingo games.
Tribal sources say they are committed to reimbursing the charities for lost revenue and point out that much of their profits go to charitable and municipal causes.
The lawsuit has former foes lining up on the same side. Cheryl Schmitt, co-director of Stand Up for California, an anti-gambling organization, says she is siding with the tribes because she does not want to see Proposition 1A overturned. She believes that as long as neighbors' concerns are being met the tribes have won the legal right to operate casinos.
"I think the spirit of the lawsuit is all wrong. You have to learn to negotiate with those who do not share your views. It's a bad sign when you have winners and losers because ultimately the community doesn't win."