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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.

At Graton, people unhappy with the tribe's decision can appeal to an arbitrator, whose decision will be final.

Two federal laws principally shape the application of state laws on tribal land. First is Public Law 280, passed in 1953. Under it, the state has criminal jurisdiction over tribal land.

"The sheriff has jurisdiction over crimes," Dickstein said. Cases in which charges are filed proceed through normal court channels, starting at county superior courts or in federal court.

The second law is the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, which set the legal framework for Indian gambling.

IGRA forced tribes to negotiate agreements with states in order to open Nevada-style casinos. That ultimately has shaped how the type of cases that most often arise in casinos, civil personal injury cases, are handled.

As it stands, there is a distribution of authority between the state and tribes in the way civil cases involving casino patrons on reservations are resolved:

; Tribes, because of their sovereign status, are guaranteed a significant role in adjudicating personal injury disputes involving their casinos.

; The state does not play a role in resolving such disputes. But since 2003, the state has required tribes getting casinos to establish ordinances applying California law to such cases.

Prior to 2003, the state-tribe agreements did not have that requirement. Tribes with pre-2003 agreements, including the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, owner of River Rock, have a process for settling legal disputes that is entirely within the tribe's control and contains no avenues for outside resolution.

Dry Creek Rancheria officials did not return calls seeking comment about their legal process.

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Robert Scully
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Year arrived: 2000
Crime: Home invasion-murder of 76-year-old Ellen Salling

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Year Arrived: 1984
Crime: Convicted of killing two of his wives

But the Graton Rancheria's agreement with the state is fairly typical for those signed post-2003, Indian law attorneys said, in how it lays out the process to resolve civil cases.

First, the ordinance allows the tribe to require that people pressing a claim submit to the tribe's own administrative process, in which tribal officials or people they appoint would judge the claim.

But also, as required by the state, the tribe must partially waive its sovereignty to give the person making the claim the right to appeal the tribal judgment to an independent, nontribal arbitrator.

"From the sovereignty standpoint, there is a bargain," said Jack Duran, a Roseville Indian law attorney who is a general counsel for tribes in California and nationwide but does not represent the Graton tribe.

"In order for the tribes to game here in California, they need to understand that the state is going to be tugging on this to make sure its interests in its citizens are going to be taken care of," Duran said.

Courts have ruled that tribes have not, simply by agreeing to enter arbitration proceedings, opened the door to being sued in state court. Someone unhappy with an arbitrator's decision stemming from a Graton casino case would have no further recourse.

Despite the arbitration requirement, or perhaps because of it, about 80 percent of such cases are resolved within the tribal process, Dickstein said.

One exception to the tribal ordinance, Coffman said, would be a fender-bender or something similar. "That would be just like any other accident that took place anywhere else. Such a matter would be handled by the insurance companies applying state law," he said. "Where the difference comes into play is when the tribe or casino is the responsible party."

The laws governing civil cases involving casino-related disputes apply equally to members of the non-Indian public, Indians who are not tribal members, and tribal members.

"The ordinance is the ordinance, irrespective of whether the person is a tribal member or not," Duran said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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