Five California Tribal Gaming Compacts to Be Handled Federally in Landmark Ruling

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The Attorney General of California has this week agreed with a February ruling that allows five California Tribes to negotiate gaming compacts directly with the U.S. government instead of with the state.

The proposed new compact issued with the United States Department of Interior is far more light touch than most state compacts.

Essentially, from this week, five operators of California casinos will be given “sole discretion” on what gaming facilities and devices are “appropriate for its market conditions and economic needs.”

The Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California, Blue Lake Rancheria, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation, Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, and Robinson Rancheria all now essentially have free rein to offer whatever gambling games they like at their Tribal casinos.

The Chicken Ranch Rancheria operate two Tribal casinos in California, with another in development.

This latest decision comes after nearly a decade of legal battles. The Tribes contested that certain California jurisdictions insistence on imposing social terms on them before being granted gaming compacts violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The Tribes won this victory, which will now be accepted by California. But they also proved to the courts that California negotiated in bad faith. The state is therefore barred from attempting to refile the case or any similar.

What States May Not Do

Various California local governments, backed up by the Governor and AG, have attempted to use the gaming compacts to suggest or even force the Tribes into adopting social or environmental policies.

The Tribes did not agree, and have now won their right to have such nongaming conditions excluded from compact negotiations. Not just for them, but potentially for other Tribes around the country.

Whether enforcing child support payments on Tribal land via mandatory checks for casino employees, or minimizing pollution from Tribal casino operations is good or bad, California has now been told it is not up to them to try and decide for the Tribes by proxy.

The decision was first ruled on in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago. But California continued to fight the ruling until this week.

“Through its negotiating demands, California effectively sought to use the Class III contracting process as leverage to impose its general policy objectives on the Tribes, which a state may not do,” Circuit Judge Daniel A. Bress said, speaking in 2022.

Potential Precedents

The acceptance of the ruling by California AG Rob Bonta to finally end this case could well be a significant legal precedent in Tribal and state gambling relations across the U.S. going forward.

For example, there have been contentious negotiations between the Seneca and the state of New York in recent years. Their gaming compact expired in December 2023, and a temporary extension has been agreed – but a new compact is still not announced.

This ruling seems to suggest that under the IGRA, if an acceptable compact cannot be agreed by both parties, then the Tribes may instead be able to seek federal approval for their gambling business.

That is – if the acceptability of an agreement hinges on nongaming related issues.

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