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Local residents claim tribal casino in San Pablo is illegal, sue federal government

By John Simerman Contra Costa Times Posted: 03/19/2010

A group of West Contra Costa residents this week sued the federal government to revoke Indian gaming rights at the former Casino San Pablo card club, claiming the tribe that now runs electronic bingo machines there cannot claim sovereignty over the land without state approval, which never happened.

A group called Neighbors of Casino San Pablo and four local residents cite centuries of American Indian history in California to argue that the state never ceded lands to tribes under treaties; so while the federal government can take property into trust for tribes, the land itself remains subject to state law. California law bars the kind of gaming that the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians now runs under federal law — more than 1,000 bingo games that mimic slot machines.

The argument mirrors a claim made by local opponents of an Indian casino planned in Rohnert Park. A federal district court dismissed that lawsuit, claiming the plaintiffs had no standing because they could not prove harm from a casino that has not yet been built. The case is under appeal.

"These are tired, worn-out arguments that have been made and rejected repeatedly by the courts," said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the Lytton tribe.

If successful, the lawsuit could affect not just Lytton, but dozens of California tribes that owe their federal status to rancherias the federal government set up across the state in the early 20th century, then dismantled, parceling off  the land. Among those tribes are the Guidiville and Scotts Valley bands of Pomo Indians. Both are pushing for federal approvals to let them build Vegas-style casinos in the Richmond area.

Tony Cohen, an attorney for San Pablo who once represented Lytton, cited a 2002 case in which the city of Auburn sued the federal government on similar grounds and lost. A district court ruled that the state was not giving up total jurisdiction over the land, since state criminal laws still apply on Indian reservations.

"The case is good law. No court has overturned it," said Cohen. He said he suspects that local card clubs, long opposed the Lytton casino, are behind the suit.

Calls to plaintiffs Andres Soto and Adrienne Harris were not returned Friday.

The San Francisco attorney who filed the suit, Martin Dodd, declined to say if card clubs were involved or estimate the size of the neighbors' group, but said he didn't believe courts have addressed the argument directly.

In the five years since the tribe installed the machines, neighbors have grown fed up over increased traffic, light pollution and what they call a rise in petty crime and prostitution around the casino, he said.

"Our clients finally reached the point of saying,' "Enough is enough. We just have to do something,'" he said.

The tribe took over the site after Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, inserted language into a sprawling Indian bill in 2000, ordering the land — which then housed a city-approved card club — to be taken into the trust for Lytton. Miller's legislation backdated the approval to meet federal Indian gaming laws.

The move turned politically volatile in 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the tribe struck a deal for as many as 5,000 slot machines — more than any casino in Las Vegas. The Legislature balked, and the tribe opted to install the bingo machines, which require no state approval on tribal land.

City officials have said Miller's legislation saved a city on the brink of bankruptcy and that the casino has done little to increase crime in the area, other than a rise that could be expected with a business that draws about 5,000 people a day.

The tribes takes in more than $100 million a year, with the city receiving about $12 million, the bulk of its general fund.

Dodd called it an alarming precedent.

"Congress waved its wand and created a little island in a populated area of the East Bay and called it an Indian reservation," he said. "It's a startling example of trying to create a reservation out of whole cloth, out of nowhere, without any input at all from the state and other people."



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