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Judge Rules for Sheriff in Tribal Civil War

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Madera County Sheriff John Anderson can patrol the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians and their lucrative casino during an ongoing battle for control of the tribe, a federal judge ruled.

Anderson last year sued the tribe, its economic and housing authorities and the "Lewis faction," currently in control of the tribe, after tribal tensions erupted into a full-fledged trilateral war.

The sheriff claimed that the Lewis faction, led by defendants Jack Duran Jr. and Donna Howard, blocked him from entering the rancheria to carry out regular law enforcement patrols of tribal lands, as a federal judge had ordered years ago.

The faction also barred Anderson from executing a court-ordered seizure of casino assets to settle a casino employee's lawsuit, according to the sheriff's original complaint.

More recently, Duran and Howard dropped their tribal court prosecution of Anderson and joined forces with the Reid faction in tribal elections late last year. But the Ayala faction - now known as the Ayala/McDonald faction - continues to oppose the others and no clear winner emerged from the tribe's vote.

In the face of all this, Anderson asked for summary judgment in his favor.

But U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the tribal entities from the action on Oct. 2, citing sovereign immunity, despite a 2007 agreement that made the Madera County Sheriff's Department responsible for policing the rancheria in exchange for a portion of the casino revenue.

"It is not necessary to determine whether Anderson is a proper party to enforce either agreement as Anderson's complaint cannot fairly be characterized to present 'a dispute as to the application, interpretation, and enforcement of the terms' of either the settlement agreement or the memorandum of understanding," Seeborg wrote.

"Both agreements burden the sheriff's law enforcement duties, particularly as they pertain to the casino. In exchange, the tribe agreed to certain payments to the county to offset the costs of law enforcement. Anderson does not, however, seek to enforce the payment provisions on behalf of his office or the county. While the underlying tribal complaint and subsequent temporary restraining order issued by the tribal court, if they remained in effect, might very well burden Anderson's ability to perform according to the MOU and settlement agreements, his challenge thereto does not 'unequivocally' constitute an action to interpret or enforce the agreements. The limited waivers therein do not extend to this action against the tribe and Chukchansi Economic Development Agency. As Anderson offers no other basis, at this time, to find consent by Chukchansi Indian Housing Authority, all three tribal entities must be dismissed from this action on the basis of sovereign immunity."

As for Duran, Howard and the Lewis/Reid faction, however, even though they dropped their tribal court action against Anderson, they have not proven that they won't block the sheriff again down the road, Seeborg said.

While tribal courts occasionally have jurisdiction over nontribal entities that do business on tribal lands, Duran's tribunal had no authority over Anderson, the judge added.

"The tribe may have standing to enforce Anderson's third-party obligations under the settlement agreement or MOU, but defendants do not point to any authority finding tribal jurisdiction over third parties not otherwise bound by a tribal contract," Seeborg wrote. "In any case, if the purpose of the compliant in the Lewis tribunal was to enforce contractual rights arising from the 2007 settlement agreement and MOU, the proper venue would have been this court, not the Lewis tribunal."

Seeborg continued: "The tribe would have a more compelling case if the intent of the underlying tribal complaint and TRO were to compel Anderson solely to abstain from supporting one side over the other in the intra-tribal dispute. That TRO, however, went beyond prohibiting Anderson from favoring the Ayala faction and compelled him to recognize the Lewis faction. For example, the Lewis tribunal TRO prohibited Anderson in his official capacity from 'dealing in any manner whatsoever with Ayala and the Ayala faction.' It further ordered Anderson to 'cease and desist contravening the Lewis tribal council's rightful authority.' Rather than acting to insulate the tribe's political integrity, the tribal complaint and TRO effectively pulled Anderson into political matters of the tribe."

Duran, Howard and the Lewis/Reid faction exceeded their legal authority by trying to control the sheriff through rouge tribal court proceedings and are barred from doing so again, Seeborg concluded.

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