The Big Lagoon Rancheria hasn’t had an easy time of it. It has been trying for decades to get into the gaming business, but so far every opportunity has blown up, messily.
Its most recent setback came yesterday, when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shut down the tribe’s plans to build a casino in the north county, on its home turf near the shores of Big Lagoon. The ruling basically hinged on a technicality — the land in question, though held in trust for the tribe by the federal government, does not technically qualify as “Indian land” due to peculiarities in treaties signed 80 years ago. Therefore, according to the court, the state of California is not required to participate in good-faith negotiations over the development of the property as a gaming center.
This decision means that the tribe stands to lose one of its best bargaining chips. Building a casino at Big Lagoon isn’t the tribe’s first choice; in the past, it has sought to develop facilities closer to where the money is. For a time it was on the verge of entering into a deal to build a megacasino near the Sourthern California town of Barstow, but that all blew up in 2008, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided that the property in question was too far away from the rancheria to benefit its members.
After this, the tribe dusted off plans to build on its own land. To do so, it was required to enter gaming compact negotiations with state government. The state balked. But the tribe took state government to court and won a decisive ruling from District Judge Claudia Wilken in 2012. The tribe wasted no time in officially announcing its plans for a new casino in Humboldt County.
But the state appealed, and — yesterday — won. The ruling is occasioning quite a bit of chatter in Indian law circles. Check out the informed commentary over at Turtle Talk, a publication of the Michigan State University College of Law. All may not be lost for Big Lagoon: One writer suggests that the tribe has a good chance of further appealing the matter to the full, en banc Ninth Circuit, where it might get a more favorable hearing.
Read yesterday’s ruling here.