Federal judges deal mixed hand to tribe’s bid for Amador casino

Federal judges far from California dealt a mixed hand this week to a long-debated casino proposed for the Amador County foothills near Ione.

On Tuesday, a top appeals court rejected the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians’ bid to intervene in a lawsuit challenging federal approval of the casino. Tribal leaders had wanted to intervene so they could defeat the underlying lawsuit through a powerful claim of sovereign immunity.

The unanimous, 10-page decision Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit means a trial judge can rule on the merits of a challenge filed by Amador County more than nine years ago.

“The tribe’s motion for intervention and the subsequent appeal have delayed a decision on the merits for three years,” Judge David Sentelle wrote for the three-judge appellate panel. “If the tribe’s motion were granted, a resolution of this case would be further delayed.”

The D.C.-based appellate court is sometimes called the nation’s second-most powerful judicial body, right below the U.S. Supreme Court, about half a dozen blocks away.

But while the ruling Tuesday was a bit of a blow to the Buena Vista Rancheria, a Supreme Court decision issued Monday helped the tribe.

Without comment, the high court declined to hear a case brought by an anti-casino group called Friends of Amador County. The Supreme Court’s decision, one of more than 200 similar decisions issued Monday, effectively upholds a previous ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The proposed casino would include a main floor and mezzanine with up to 1,650 slot machines, 60 table games and four full-service restaurants, according to the Buena Vista Rancheria’s website. The planned parking lot would include spaces for up to 1,000 vehicles.

Friends of Amador County had challenged the federal gambling compact granted to the Buena Vista Rancheria, arguing in part that it was not a legitimate tribe. Without tribal status and a gambling compact, Buena Vista Rancheria could not proceed with its plans for building the “Buenavue Casino” on a 67.5-acre site.

“The putative Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians’ (was) never lawfully organized,” attorneys for Friends of Amador County argued in a legal brief. “As a result they were not entitled to engage in gambling” at the 67.5-acre site.

In a decision issued Jan. 29, the 9th Circuit panel rejected the Friends of Amador County’s challenge.

“The court cannot simply turn a blind eye to the tribe’s status as a federally recognized tribe,” the 9th Circuit reasoned, adding that it “has the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

The subsequent bid by Friends of Amador County to have the Supreme Court review the 9th Circuit’s decision was always a long shot, as the high court typically only accepts about 75 cases out of the 9,000 or so petitions it receives each year. Buena Vista Rancheria’s attorneys argued that the 9th Circuit’s “unremarkable, unpublished” decision did not merit further scrutiny.

“The case does not implicate issues of national importance,” attorney Padraic McCoy wrote in a brief for the Buena Vista Rancheria.

McCoy also represented the Buena Vista Rancheria on the case decided Tuesday by the D.C.-based appellate court. Representatives of the Rancheria could not be reached Tuesday.