Tribe Wins Ground for New Casino in Arizona

     PHOENIX (CN) – Federal law pre-empts an Arizona law authorizing the city of Glendale to annex land taken into government trust for the Tohono O’odham Nation, a federal judge ruled.

     The Tohono O’odham, which controls a three-million acre reservation west of Tucson in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, bought unincorporated land near Glendale, and asked the Department of the Interior to take the land into trust.
     The O’odham acquired the disputed property in a purchase of 135 acres from Delaware-based Rainier Resources in August 2003. Although the tribe already operates a casino on its reservation that braces the Arizona-Mexico border, it announced plans to build the new Glendale casino in January 2009.
     The Gila River Indian Community and Glendale claim the new O’odham casino would violate a voter-approved proposition that incorporated multiple provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and limited casinos to gaming facilities already on existing tribal lands.
     That legislation, House Bill 2534, passed on Feb. 1. It allows cities and towns within Arizona’s three largest counties to annex land surrounded or almost surrounded by the city or town, if the landowner has asked the federal government to take ownership of the land or to take it into trust.
     U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell had paved the way for the casino by deciding in March that casino opponents had no basis to stop the United States from accepting the tribe’s parcel into trust. Campbell granted another decision for the tribe on Thursday.
     Since the bill was enacted after the federal government took the land into trust for the Tohono O’odham, its application “to the Nation’s land thus would stand as an ‘obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,'” Campbell wrote.
     Once the tribe asked the federal government to take its land into trust in January 2009, the property was no longer within the Glendale corporate limits, according to the ruling.
     Campbell wrote that application of the new law to this land would clearly “frustrate Congress’ purpose in the Gila Bend Act,” which requires the federal government to take land into trust for a tribe upon its request. As such, it “would deprive the Nation of traditional annexation hearing and voting rights solely because it exercised its right under the Act,” Campbell concluded.
     Although voting rights and annexation hearing “are not available to the Nation as a matter of constitutional right … they are statutory rights that H.B. 2534 eliminates on the Nation has requested that its land be held in trust,” according to the Thursday ruling.
     Campbell also found that the Arizona Legislature “clearly sought to block application of the Gila Bend Act to the Nation’s property near Glendale” with the passage of H.B. 2534, and although the court “is sympathetic to the State’s desire to control annexation of municipal lands and to avoid federal acquisition of land surrounded or virtually surrounded by a city or town, particularly when the acquisition may allow gambling in a community that strongly opposes it, the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits state legislatures from enacting laws that ‘directly conflict’ with a federal statute.”
     The ruling dismisses the Tohono O’odham’s claims that Arizona’s law violates its due-process rights because the state has “rationally chosen” to prevent “intergovernmental conflicts by increasing the ability of cities and towns to annex neighboring areas which may be transferred to the federal government.”
     In June, Campbell ruled that Arizona’s lawsuit banning the Tohono O’odham from building the casino is not barred by sovereign immunity because District Courts have jurisdiction over “‘any’ lawsuits ‘initiated’ by a State or Indian tribe to enjoin gaming activity on Indian lands, but without specifying when the lawsuit must be ‘initiated.'”

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