Appeals court sides with tribes in fight over land decisions

AP News
Posted: Jun 04, 2015 6:55 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In a victory for Native American tribes, an appeals court ruled Thursday that states cannot use negotiations for a Native American casino to challenge the federal government's decisions to recognize a tribe and set aside land for it.

An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said states have to use a separate process to contest those decisions and have a window of six years to file their challenge.

The decision removes the uncertainty many tribes faced about their land status after a smaller 9th Circuit panel reached a different conclusion, said Joe Webster, a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker who was closely watching the case.

"This is certainly an important decision for tribes," he said.

The ruling came in a fight between California and the Humboldt County-based Big Lagoon Rancheria over the tribe's plan for a Las Vegas-style casino.

The tribe accused the state in a lawsuit of failing to negotiate a casino deal in good faith, and largely won its case in federal district court. A call to the state attorney general's office for comment about Thursday's ruling wasn't immediately returned.

California appealed, saying the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs did not properly recognize the tribe and lacked authority to take an 11-acre parcel into trust for it, according to the ruling. The state cited a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said federal officials could take land into trust only on behalf of tribes that were recognized before 1934.

The Big Lagoon Rancheria began appearing on the federal list of tribal entities in 1979, according to the ruling.

Circuit Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, however, said California never filed a timely administrative challenge to the tribe's appearance on the list or the government's decision to take land into trust for it and was instead engaging in a "collateral attack."

"Allowing California to attack collaterally the BIA's decision to take the eleven-acre parcel into trust outside the (Administrative Procedure Act) would constitute just the sort of end-run that we have previously refused to allow, and would cast a cloud of doubt over countless acres of land that have been taken into trust for tribes recognized by the federal government," he wrote.

The ruling allows the Big Lagoon Rancheria's casino proposal to go forward. A final decision on the proposal will now go before the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the court said.