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Lawsuit seeking to block Rohnert Park casino to go to trial

  • Artist's Rendering of Graton Resort & Casino, Rohnert Park.

A lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown that challenges the legal status of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's reservation outside Rohnert Park has been set for a summer trial in Sonoma County.

The lawsuit aims to overturn a 2012 agreement between the state and the Graton Rancheria that allows the tribe to run a Las Vegas-style casino on its Wilfred Avenue property. The 3,000-slot-machine casino is under construction and set to open late this year after a decade of fierce opposition.

The lawsuit argues that the state never gave up its sovereignty over the property and that therefore, in negotiating the agreement with the tribe, Brown violated state law prohibiting casinos from operating anywhere but on sovereign tribal territory.

Stephen Pevar, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and author of "The Rights of Indians and Tribes," on Wednesday called the lawsuit a "very desperate and unmeritorious claim."

But Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who leads a group that is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said it "could be a landmark case" that could stop the casino from opening.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum on Tuesday denied the state's request to move the case to federal court — where the government might more effectively argue that it is immune from such lawsuits — and he set an Aug. 2 trial date.

On Wednesday, the Secretary of the Interior and the chairwoman of the National Indian Gaming Commission were removed from the suit. That further limits the chances that the state could get Daum to move the case to federal courts.

"This is a huge victory for us. We've gotten past the procedural hurdles," said Worthington, who heads Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The state Attorney General's Office referred questions about the case to the governor's office, which declined to comment.

A trial means the Stop the Casino 101's legal arguments will get a legitimate hearing, said attorney Mike Healy, who wrote the lawsuit.


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