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Mono Indians Will Get a Casino, Judge Says

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - California must reach a gaming compact with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians for a Central California casino that state voters rejected last year, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii ruled Friday that the state did not act "in good faith" when it refused to discuss the tribe's casino plans for a specific site north of Madera, on land placed into trust for the tribe's project by the federal government.

The state and the tribe must conclude a gaming compact within 60 days of his order, Ishii said.

Tribal Chairwoman Maryann McGrovan said the tribe is pleased with the ruling and "believes it represents another important step forward in our ability to bring jobs and economic opportunity to the region."

Gareth Lacy, deputy press secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the state is reviewing its options.

The 80-acre North Fork Rancheria is in a remote and environmentally sensitive area in the Madera County foothills near Yosemite National Forest. The 305-acre site for the casino and hotel is 38 miles away - north of Highway 99 near Madera - and held in federal trust for the tribe.

The casino would have 2,000 slot machines, 40 gaming tables and a bingo hall, and create more than 1,500 permanent jobs.

The Department of the Interior issued its environmental review for the North Fork casino in 2009 and made its official recommendation in 2011.

The next year, Gov. Brown signed off on federal permission for the tribe to build the casino, and the Legislature ratified a tribal-state gaming compact with North Fork in 2013.

However, voters rejected the compact in Proposition 48 in November 2014, with more than 60 percent of voters choosing not to uphold the compact between North Fork and the state.

Brown then suggested to the tribe that more negotiations "would be futile," prompting the tribe to file a lawsuit accusing the state of failing to negotiate in good faith, as required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The state argued that it did not reject negotiations altogether, but merely refused to negotiate over the specific Madera parcel after Prop. 48 was defeated.

Ishii ruled against the state Friday, finding that it had "flatly refused to negotiate with the tribe regarding the Madera parcel."

"(A)ssuming that the state sought its refusal to be an attempt to negotiate regarding a different gaming site, that attempt would only be permitted as a means to remedy an issue regarding a negotiable topic," Ishii wrote.

The Secretary of the Interior and the governor both determined that gaming on the Madera parcel would be in the best interest of the tribe and would benefit the local economy as a whole, the judge pointed out.

"The state does not now contend that any of the secretary's determinations were incorrect, nor does it articulate any basis for its refusal to negotiate regarding the Madera parcel," Ishii said.

Furthermore, the state failed to provide a legitimate state goal that could be accomplished by demanding a different location for the casino, the judge said.

Ishii ordered the state to conclude negotiations with the tribe for a gaming compact within 60 days. If the sides cannot reach an agreement, they will each have to submit a proposed compact to a mediator, who will select the compact most in line with federal law.

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians has about 1,800 enrolled members, according to publicly available information. Their name for themselves is Nim in Mono, which is a member of the enormous Uto-Aztecan language group, which extends all the way to the Valley of Mexico.

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