Skip to main content

California v. Cabazon, 30 Years Later: Tribes Celebrate Historic Ruling for Indian Gaming

Fantasy Springs Casino and Resort in Indio, California, was the site of a Native-style soirée February 25, marking the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, California v. Cabazon and Morongo Bands of Mission Indians. The landmark 1987 decision paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), passed the following year, leading to a sea of change in economic development in Indian country. IGRA is arguably the most significant law passed in recent history for having reduced poverty on reservation lands.

Co-hosted by both Morongo and Cabazon, the elegant invitation-only gala appeared to spare no expense. With around 800 attendees, the visually stunning celebration featured a formal filet mignon and lobster thermidor dinner amid copious fresh floral sprays, colorfully lighted backdrops, and chocolate-lined ice sculptures in the shape of “30.” Frank Sinatra sidekick Tommy Dreesen served as master of ceremonies, and after dinner the audience was treated to a special performance by Grammy award-winning artist Mary J. Blige.

Mary J. Blige performed at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino on Friday, Feb. 24, singing hits including "Just Fine," "Real Love," "Be Without You" and "Family Affair."

Mary J. Blige performed at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino on Friday, Feb. 24, singing hits including "Just Fine," "Real Love," "Be Without You" and "Family Affair."

Dreesen acknowledged dignitaries in the audience including numerous chairpersons and council members from tribes across the country, and local and state government officials. A short video retrospective recounted the pre-gaming days of Morongo, summoning memories of days when there was no running water or paved roads on a dusty reservation out in the middle of nowhere. The film recalled earlier failed attempts at economic development, such as a smoke shop that had been shut down.


But it was a high stakes bingo hall that created jobs and held hope for greater economic success, that led to a showdown with state of California. Cabazon, perhaps better known in this story, had experienced similar problems with a card room that had been raided by Riverside County police. With separate legal cases that had made their way through the lower courts, the two tribes’ cases were eventually enjoined when they reached the Supreme Court.

Glenn Feldman, attorney for Cabazon, and Morongo’s attorney George Forman, were both in attendance and honored with special awards for their longstanding and exceptional service to the tribes and their contributions to federal Indian law. Morongo attorney Barbara Karshmer who also worked on the case was recognized in absentia by tribal vice chair Mary Ann Andreas.

While it is Feldman who is known for his successful argument before the Supreme Court, both he and Forman recall with humor that it was a coin toss that determined who would do the talking.

“Barbara and I were there with him. Not only did he win the coin toss, he tossed the coin,” Forman told ICMN, with a wry smile. “Such was the level of collegiality and trust that we had.”

ICMN spoke with Feldman, Forman, and Morongo tribal chairman Robert Martin, about the impact the Cabazon decision has had on Indian country. Not surprisingly, all agree that the legacy of the Cabazon decision is twofold: 1) the economic transformation it has created in Indian country, especially in places like California, and 2), its affirmation of tribal sovereignty.

“Naturally, IGRA didn’t create tribal sovereignty, but it strengthened it with the courts finally recognizing it,” said Chairman Martin.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Cabazon Tribal Elder Joe Benitez

Cabazon Tribal Elder Joe Benitez (right) conducts a blessing to start the festivities.

IGRA didn’t come without certain costs, however, since tribes compromise some of their sovereignty when they sign gaming compacts with state governments. But they were compromises most tribes would agree were worthwhile.


“IGRA carved out an exception to the Johnson Act [which was a prohibition on certain gambling devices, like slot machines, in Indian country], and IGRA had been in the works since before the Cabazon decision. Most would say that it was worthwhile because it gave them slot machines,” Forman told ICMN.

When asked about their perceptions of how the case would’ve been decided in today's court (in other words, how has the environment of the Supreme Court changed from then to now), there is no question that, in the words of George Forman, “the court is not terribly friendly to tribes” and that things are very different today. As Glenn Feldman pointed out, “in 1986/1987 there were justices on the court who were real champions of Indian rights and tribal sovereignty…I’m thinking of Justice Marshall and Justice Brennan in particular. Today we don’t have those same advocates. We have some members of the court who you really wonder whether they believe in tribal sovereignty at all.”

Morongo Chairman Robert Martin addresses audience of 800, including many tribal, state, and local government dignitaries.

Morongo Chairman Robert Martin addresses audience of 800, including many tribal, state, and local government dignitaries.

On the other hand, Forman points out that “one of the things the Cabazon decision taught was the importance of not relying just on the judicial process, that it has to be a multifaceted effort involving the legislative.”

What do these Indian country movers and shakers foresee for tribes in the age of Trump, where talk of “privatizing” reservations invokes fears of a new termination era?

“I think it's too soon to tell,” said Chairman Martin, adding that privatization could be seen as a form of termination. “But most of our council feels he [Trump] will be disastrous for Indian country.”

Glenn Feldman was also circumspect. “I’m not sure what that even means,” he stated. “I think tribes have a pretty strong bipartisan support in congress. It’s true that federal Indian policy has been cyclical over the last 150 to 200 years, and it’s not inconceivable that something like that [termination] could happen again, but I'd like to think that tribes have established themselves and have enough political support, if not in the executive branch, at least in the legislative branch, if something like that were to come down.”