Calif. Tribe, Feds Beat Challenge To Casino Land Acquisition

By Joyce Hanson 

Law360 (October 8, 2019, 6:42 PM EDT) -- The federal government and the Wilton Rancheria Tribe of California have defeated a lawsuit challenging the tribe's acquisition of land in trust to build a casino, with a D.C. federal judge ruling that the land acquisition was handled properly.

U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden denied nonprofit Stand Up for California's motion for summary judgment on Monday in his final order, which can be appealed. The judge also granted summary judgment to cross bids filed by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the tribe.

Judge McFadden found that the 36 acres of land in Elk Grove, California, are eligible for the "restored lands" exception under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. 

Under the "restored lands" exception, the Wilton Rancheria had met four conditions, the judge said. The tribe was federally recognized at one time, it later lost its government-to-government relationship, and after it lost that relationship, the tribe was restored to federal recognition. Lastly, the newly acquired lands meet the criteria for the restored lands exception.

The exception allows the tribes that have been restored to federal recognition to work around the Indian gaming law's general prohibition on gambling on lands acquired after the law's 1988 passage.

Judge McFadden ruled that the DOI and its Bureau of Indian Affairs complied with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the California Rancheria Termination Act of 1958 and the Administrative Procedure Act in acquiring the trust land. He also ruled that the acquisition of land for gaming complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.

In addition, Judge McFadden said the Wilton Rancheria has a significant historical connection to the Elk Grove site.

"The department found that the site is located within the territory once predominantly occupied by ancestors of Wilton members, near historic village sites of other ancestors, and just a short distance from territory predominantly occupied by still other ancestors," Judge McFadden said. "The site is also fewer than six miles from the historic Wilton Rancheria and a short distance from a cemetery that Wilton members have long used as a burial site." 

Stand Up, which has challenged several tribal casino projects, first filed the current suit in January 2017, initially seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prevent the DOI from acquiring title to the land.

Eventually, after the court refused to enjoin the DOI, the group amended its lawsuit in August 2017 to take issue with how the agency issued its record of a decision agreeing to take the site into trust, saying it seemed the DOI had raced to issue the trust decision before the change in presidential administrations.

Also, according to the group's August 2017 amended complaint, the Wilton Rancheria is not a recognized Indian tribe under federal jurisdiction because it was set aside for homeless Indians, "and there is no established connection between the Indians living on the rancheria in 1934 and members of the Wilton Rancheria today."

But Judge McFadden in February 2018 ruled in favor of the DOI and the Wilton Rancheria in Stand Up's suit, holding that federal officials acted within their authority. The judge said the actions taken by department employees in lieu of the assistant secretary-Indian Affairs — a vacant office at the time — didn't violate departmental regulations.

In its April 2 summary judgment motion, Stand Up asked Judge McFadden to vacate the court's approval of the tribe's land request, saying it violates numerous federal laws, including the California Rancheria Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, among others.

The DOI and the Wilton Rancheria on May 16 filed separate summary judgment motions. The government argued in its brief that the tribe is entitled to benefits as a federally recognized tribe and the decision didn't violate the NEPA, while the tribe said the government didn't need to prepare an additional environmental impact statement on the project.

Counsel for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 
Stand Up and the individuals are represented by Jennifer A. MacLean, Benjamin S. Sharp and Meredith R. Weinberg of Perkins Coie LLP.

The DOI is represented by Cody McBride and Steven Miskinis of the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division, Indian Resources Section.

The tribe is represented by Neal K. Katyal, Jessica L. Ellsworth, Eugene A. Sokoloff and Benjamin A. Field of Hogan Lovells.

The case is Stand Up for California! et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior et al., case number 1:17-cv-00058, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 
--Additional reporting by Adrian Cruz and Andrew Westney. Editing by Nicole Bleier. 

Posted: Oct 12, 2019,
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