Alexander Valley's Wappo Indian tribe wants to remove Sonoma and Napa counties from its lawsuit seeking federal recognition, arguing the counties don't have a stake in the case.
Sonoma and Napa fear the tribe will build a casino if it wins federal recognition. Both counties oppose the Wappos' legal move.
"We think the county has a legitimate role in the litigation," Jeff Brax, an attorney for the County of Sonoma, said Friday. "There's a direct link to land for future gaming."
An Indian casino would conflict with Napa's agriculture protection rules, said Larry Florin, the county's director of intergovernmental relations.
"We think they're sidestepping the process that Congress intended," he said. "They should go through the process like any other tribe."
U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila will hear the tribe's motion in June.
The Wappos are suing U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, saying the federal government acted unlawfully when it disbanded the tribe in 1959. The Wappos want the government to restore their tribal status, benefits and land rights.
Tribal chairman Scott Gabaldon said the Wappos have no plans for a casino and won't make any decisions about future development until they get recognition. If it wins the lawsuit, the tribe would have the ability to put land into trust for gaming.
Last month, the Wappos asked Davila to bar the counties from further participation in the case. The tribe has amended its complaint to seek only surplus federal land, so the counties no longer have a direct interest, the tribe said.
No specific parcel has been identified, and "the land may not even be located within either of the counties' jurisdiction," the tribe said.
If the judge allows Sonoma and Napa to remain in the case, the counties should have a limited role, Wappo attorneys said.
The counties' responses are due next Tuesday.
The two counties intervened in the lawsuit in 2010 and asked the court to dismiss the Wappos' complaint, alleging the tribe waited too long to file their claims. They also argued the tribe shouldn't be allowed to remove land from their jurisdictions without local approval.
Davila denied the counties' motion.