Rule of law differs inside tribal casinos like Graton

  • Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park on Thursday, October 31, 2013.
    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The world of the sprawling Graton Resort & Casino is a distinct one where any disputes that arise will take place in a notably different legal landscape.

That is because the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's 254-acre reservation is largely exempt from state laws.

A tribal casino is "not just a private business, it's a governmental entity that's operating a business," said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who represents tribes. And it's a government with established sovereignty rights.

Legal conflicts will be resolved through a mesh of arrangements fashioned by the state and tribe within the framework of federal laws. Certain disputes are to be handled very differently at the Graton casino than at Sonoma County's other casino, River Rock, which opened 11 years ago outside Geyserville.

At both casinos, criminal cases are handled by law enforcement agencies and the court as they are throughout California.

But civil cases, including personal injury cases, are a different matter. Complaining parties have no access to state courts.

"It's a unique area of personal injury law in California," said David Coffman, an attorney in Laguna Niguel in Orange County whose practice includes major personal injury cases involving tribal casinos. He said he gets 15 to 20 inquiries a year about legal disputes arising in tribal casinos.

Tribal sovereignty, under which tribes are self-governing, is the essential factor defining civil disputes.

And Graton illustrates how the balance between sovereignty and state interests has evolved since tribal casinos first sprouted.

At the older River Rock Casino, the tribe is the sole decider of the legitimacy of civil claims and the amount of money, if any, that will be awarded.

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