Judge deals blow to lawsuit seeking to stop Rohnert Park casino

A Sonoma County judge on Thursday dealt a serious blow to opponents of the tribal casino being built outside Rohnert Park, ruling against them in a lawsuit aimed at halting the project that had been set for trial today.

The lawsuit filed against Gov. Jerry Brown was the latest effort in a 10-year battle by the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition to derail the casino being developed by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. It sought to invalidate Brown's contract with the tribe that allowed it to build a Las Vegas-style casino on its 254-acre Wilfred Avenue reservation. Casino foes had hoped a successful suit would limit the tribe to a gambling hall with only bingo machines and card games, perhaps crippling a project that has cost $800 million to develop.

As it stands, the Graton Resort & Casino is set to open late this year as the Bay Area's largest gaming hall, with 2,000 employees and 3,000 slot machines.

Following the ruling, Stop the Casino leaders immediately announced they would consider appealing the decision. They suggested that Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum had been wary of tackling a case involving the extraordinarily complex area of Indian law, one that could have reverberated broadly in the world of tribal casino development.

"I did really feel that this would be a tough case for a local judge because of the magnitude of the case," said Marilee Montgomery of Rohnert Park, one of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit's central argument hinged on the fact that California has never formally ceded the land that makes up the tribe's reservation to the federal government, which took the property into trust for the tribe in 2010.

Without that action, the property remained under the control of state law, the lawsuit said, which would mean that Nevada-style gaming is illegal there and that Brown's agreement with the tribe violated the state Constitution.

Daum, in a 14-page ruling, agreed that the state had never ceded jurisdiction over the tribe's land; that the land, before it was taken into trust, had never since California's statehood been governed by the Graton Rancheria; and that the 2000 congressional act that restored the tribe's federally recognized status does not "purport to alter California's sovereignty or jurisdiction over the property."

But he cited previous court cases to rule the lawsuit's argument invalid. He noted a similar claim by the city of Roseville against the United Auburn Indian Community, which runs the Thunder Valley Casino Resort. A federal court dismissed that case in 2002.

The Roseville case, he said, "negates plaintiffs' claim that the property on which the tribe is building its casino must be ceded by the state to the federal government to be eligible for gaming."

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