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Reality of American Indian sovereignty affirmed in California

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California tribes won a great ruling recently and deserve hearty congratulations from all of Indian country. The U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of California found Proposition 1A, which empowered Indian nation economies and was passed overwhelmingly by voters, to be constitutionally sound. The court rejected a lawsuit filed by a small group of California card room operators contending that tribal gaming compacts now give tribes an unfair "monopoly" over Nevada-style gambling in California.

The tribal-state gaming agreements, made possible by the passage of Proposition 1A and signed by California tribal governments, were approved by the Department of the Interior and are now in effect. However, the governor put a freeze on new compacts while the lawsuit was in process. The governor's ban has prevented tribes like the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians from negotiating compacts to which they have a right by law.

Although challenged by particular groups, California tribes have won serious victories, before at the polls, now in the court. They garnered majority support from voters for Proposition 1A and signed many successful compacts before the lawsuit. Led by tribes like Morongo, Chumash and others, statewide, tribes coalesced and communicated directly to the mass of voters, who liked what they heard from the tribal leaders and spokespeople. The education campaign, which resulted in acceptance by voters, also made the sound basis of the Indian cases much more understandable to the courts.

In the present case, the judge cited the United States Constitution, treaties and case law as reasons for not interfering with Indian tribes' authority to build and operate casinos. The case is particularly important because U.S. District Judge David Levi firmly cited case law affirming Indian tribes to be political, and not racial, units. He pointed to a 1974 United States Supreme Court decision holding that tribes are "quasi-sovereign entities," with political and not racial aims.

All American Indians and thinking citizens everywhere should help educate the people on this one fundamental point. The legal powers tribes possess are not, repeat, not, racially based. They are derived from their retained sovereignty as governments and are therefore grounded in political reality. This is rooted in the historical fact of previous sovereign status leading to the sovereign right of governance and territorial jurisdiction. Congratulations to the California tribes that drove this point home and who are presenting fundamental Indian positions clearly and with success.

Local politicians and business leaders are supportive of the present decision. Morongo and other tribes have contributed greatly to employment in their respective regions. The Morongo tribe employs more than 1,500 people, for example, making it the largest employer in the San Gorgonio Pass region. Then, again, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, California State Assembly and Senate, State Attorney General, California Federation of Labor, taxpayer groups, chambers of commerce, law enforcement, religious and ethnic leaders supported the passage of Proposition 1A. Millions of Californians expressed their support of it.

The opinion by Judge Levi stated that, "the class III gaming compacts are valid" under both federal law and the state constitution.

Here is some of the excellent language in the decision:

"The court further finds that the tribal class III gaming monopoly does not discriminate on the basis of race. Under well established Supreme Court precedent, '[federal] regulation of Indian tribes ... is governance of once-sovereign political communities; it is not to be viewed as legislation of a 'racial' group consisting of "Indians" ...." United States v. Antelope, 430 U.S. 641, 646 (1977) (quoting Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 553 n.24 (1974)). So long as the compacts are rationally related to Congress' trust obligation to the tribes, the compacts will not be set aside on constitutional grounds. Because the compacts, including the monopoly on Class III gaming, promote tribal economic development, they are rationally related to Congress' trust obligations and do not violate equal protection."

The court goes on to find facts and procedural history of the case in IGRA, and in the various decisions like Cabazon (1987) that set the stage for tribal gaming enterprises and its rationale in rebuilding and re-capitalizing Indian country. The depth of analysis by Judge Levi provides a sound basis to sustain, in the likelihood that the case is appealed.

Indian leaders in California, notably Morongo tribal Chairman Maurice Lyons, wasted no time in calling for lifting the moratorium on the compacts still to be finalized. We concur.