A lawsuit that questions the right of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to open a casino next to Rohnert Park may delay the project but is unlikely to stop it, some Indian law experts say.
The suit challenges the sovereign status of the Indian-owned land.
"It was carefully constructed, the pleadings were clear. They very carefully set out the law," said Dennis Whittlesey, a Detroit Indian law attorney who helped draft the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the regulatory structure for tribal gambling.
Still, he said, "so much has been decided at the federal level, including the trust acceptance, it would be very hard for this lawsuit to be successful, though they may have some victories short term."
The suit revives arguments from an earlier suit that in 2010 was rejected by a federal appeals court on grounds it was premature. The new suit is againt Gov. Jerry Brown and seeks to invalidate an agreement, or compact, he reached with the tribe to allow the casino.
The compact is under final review by the federal Interior Department, which has until July 6 to approve it, reject it or allow it to take effect.
The tribe, backed by Station Casinos of Las Vegas, bought the land in 2005 for $100 million. The federal government took it into trust in 2010, making it a reservation that, as it stands, is exempt from most state and local laws.
The suit, filed May 21 by Stop the Casino 101, argues that for reasons related to why the land was taken into trust, and also to its history, the 254-acre property still is subject to state law.
That would mean the land cannot be used for the Class III gambling the tribe plans to offer in its 3,000-slot machine casino. It would be permitted to open a Class II casino with bingo machines and card tables, but that likely would doom the project, said Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, who wrote the suit.
"That wouldn't be nearly as big, and I doubt the economics of their contract with Station would allow that to pencil out," Healy said, referring to contracts under which the tribe, starting in the first year of casino operations, is to repay Station Casinos $17 million a year.
Station Casinos officials declined comment Monday, as did the tribe's attorney and Brown's office.
The suit makes a case that the land was taken into trust solely so that the tribe could build a casino there and has no history of ownership or use by the tribe. The state never formally ceded its control over it, Healy said. That means state laws that prohibit Class III gambling on non-Indian lands still hold sway, he said.
"This has not been Indian land since California came into the union. It's always been subject to California law," he said.
"Someone cannot just go out and buy a piece of land and have the federal government take it into trust and deprive" the state of its sovereignty, he said.
State authorities maintain that if a tribe buys property to open a casino and that land is taken into trust, they cannot intercede legally. Healy contends that is incorrect.
"They don't have to cede state sovereignty over sites like this, and there is absolutely nothing the federal government can do to overrule them when they don't," he said.