Calif. Loses En Banc Challenge to Casino Plan

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California cannot block a small Indian tribe’s plans for a casino and hotel in Humboldt County, the en banc Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday.
     In its efforts to deter Big Lagoon Rancheria’s dream of a Class III casino – something the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act notes comes with “high-stakes games usually associated with Nevada-style gambling” – California argued that the tribe is not federally recognized and does not own the land on which it plans to build.
     Big Lagoon had sued the state in 1999, claiming that California did not negotiate about the proposed casino in good faith. The tribe and the state reached a settlement in 2005, but it lapsed two years later, according to the 9th Circuit’s latest opinion in the case.
     At just 18 pages, the length of the ruling nearly matches the size of the 11-judge appellate panel that signed off on it.
     Today’s en banc decision by Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain comes in answer to a second suit Big Lagoon filed in 2009, which ended last year with a three-judge panel siding with the tribe on its bad-faith claims.
     California countered that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no right to take the 11-acre parcel at issue into trust, but O’Scannlain Thursday said that the state would have to bring an Administrative Procedure Act action to make that case.
     “Allowing California to attack collaterally the BIA’s decision to take the eleven-acre parcel into trust outside the APA would constitute just the sort of end-run that we have previously refused to allow, and would cast a cloud of doubt over countless acres of land that have been taken into trust for tribes recognized by the federal government,” the ruling states.
     O’Scannlain cited the same logic in refusing to consider the BIA’s recognition of Big Lagoon Rancheria as an Indian tribe.
     He said all that remains to be done in the case is for the Secretary of the Interior to approve the tribe’s proposal.
     The tribe’s attorney, Peter Engstrom with Baker & McKenzie, applauded Thursday’s “meaningful decision.”
     “And it’s the right decision, by a unanimous and obviously thoughtful en banc panel,” Engstrom said in an email. “We look forward to the next stage in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act process, which is for the court-appointed IGRA mediator to notify the Secretary of the Interior of the compact he selected, namely, that proposed by the tribe.”
     A representative for the state could not be reached for comment.

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