A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected a challenge by former United Auburn tribal chairwoman Jessica Tavares and other dissident members who charged they were illegally banished and denied their shares of profits from the lucrative Thunder Valley Casino near Lincoln.
The ruling by the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to a bitter 2013 clash in one of California’s wealthiest casino tribes and ensuing litigation, effectively rejected claims that the tribe “imposed unlawful restraints” on the “liberty” of Tavares and three other members by cutting off their income and banning them from United Auburn properties.
In October, 2013, Tavares and the other members brought legal action, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento as a writ of habeas corpus under the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. She charged that the tribal council for the United Auburn Indian Community wrongly denied her $40,000 a month in benefits and bonuses, based on casino profits, and illegally banished her for 10 years.
Tavares was stripped of payments for 3 1/2 years, starting in 2011, reduced by the tribe from an original sanction of four years. The others were denied payments of $30,000 and up for five months and given a two-year banishment, a punishment since expired.
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Tavares and the other plaintiffs – Dolly Suehead, Barbara Suehead and Donna Caesar – were part of an unsuccessful recall effort against five tribal council members that focused on the dissidents’ protests over what they charged were excessive legal fees paid to the firm of tribal attorney Howard Dickstein. The lawyer contended he had provided “a phenomenal net benefit to the tribe.”
The 9th Circuit upheld a district court ruling that rejected the Tavares’ faction’s habeas corpus claim on grounds that federal courts lacked authority to intervene in internal tribal politics.
“We ground our opinion in two fundamental principles in the Indian law canon – tribal sovereignty and congressional primacy in Indian affairs,” wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown in the court’s decision. “We have long recognized that Indian tribes are ‘distinct, independent communities, retaining their original natural rights.’ ”
In a partial dissent, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw supported the ruling that the court couldn’t intervene by overturning the tribe’s financial sanctions against the members. But Wardlaw wrote that United Auburn’s continuing 10-year-banishment order against Tavares “severely restrains her liberty and constitutes ‘detention’ under the Indian Civil Rights Act” and, thus can be overturned by the courts.
“Taveras presents us with precisely the kind of case over which Congress intended to establish federal jurisdiction: having exercised her right to free expression,” Wardlow wrote, adding “Tavares suffered retaliation … in the form of ‘severe restrains on individual liberty’ not shared by other members of her tribe.”
According to court documents, Tavares and the other members were sanctioned for claims in their recall petition that raised “a litany of allegations” against tribal council members, including ‘financial mismanagement, retaliation, electoral irregularity (and) denial of due process.’ ”
The tribal council ruling, which banned the members from tribal events, offices and properties other than the members’ own homes, was also imposed because the tribal government ruled the Taveres’ faction wrongfully took its grievances to the news media, including The Sacramento Bee in “a sensationalized publicity stunt.”
Tavares served as chairwoman of the tribe for many years. She led the group when it opened its wildly successful casino on Highway 65 in 2003.