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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Arizona Tribal Land Protected by Federal Law

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - An Arizona law that could block a Native American tribe's trust application for replacement reservation land is preempted by federal law, the Ninth Circuit ruled Friday.

After the state legislature passed H.B. 2534, which allows a city or town within populous counties to annex certain surrounding, unincorporated lands, the Tohono O'odham Nation claimed it was enacted to block the federal government from taking the 135 acres it purchased into trust on behalf of the tribe.

The process by which the federal government would take the land into trust would make it part of the tribe's reservation per the 1986 Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act, which was designed to help replace reservation lands and promote the tribe's economic self-sufficiency.

According to the Ninth Circuit ruling, the Tohono O'odham Nation's plans to build a casino on the land have been "vigorously opposed" by Arizona and the City of Glendale, which is near the property at issue.

The tribe sued the state and city shortly after H.B. 2534 passed in 2011, claiming the law was "specifically intended to frustrate the operation of the [Lands Replacement] Act by permitting the city to annex the Nation's land and bring it within the city's 'corporate limits,' thereby rendering it ineligible to be taken into trust under the Act," according to court records.

The lawsuit alleged federal preemption as well as due process and equal protection violations.

A federal judge denied the Tohono O'odham's civil rights claims, but ruled in favor of the tribe on its preemption claim. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision Friday.

Judge Milan Smith said that H.B. 2534 "clearly stands as an obstacle to the Act" because the law's effect is to thwart "the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives" of the reservation lands replacement law.

"It is abundantly clear that H.B. 2534 applies to the Nation's trust application and would, if not preempted, enable the city to effectively veto any portion of that application not already brought to fruition," the judge wrote for a three-judge panel.

Under the Arizona law, "the city purportedly has the authority -- at the point when the Nation files a trust application -- to preemptively annex unincorporated land and effectively block the trust application," according to the ruling.

"This directly bars the Nation's effort to incorporate purchased land into tribal land," Smith said in the 20-page opinion. "H.B. 2534 stands as a clear and manifest obstacle to the purpose of the Act because it was enacted after the Nation's trust application was filed, and it uses that application itself to thwart the taking of purchased land into trust."

Since the San Francisco-based appeals court held that the law is invalid based on federal preemption, Smith said, it doesn't need to address the tribe's remaining challenges to the law.

Tohono O'odham Nation's representatives could not be reached for comment Friday morning.

Arizona's counsel declined to comment.

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