Appeals court rejects enrollment lawsuit
Ed. Note: Founders of the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization include disenrolled members of other California tribes, as well as currently enrolled tribal members, individual Indians, state-recognized Indians and other supporters. The original posting incorrectly stated AIRRO was solely formed by former members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

A group of California Indians seeking membership in the Table Mountain Rancheria were rejected by a federal appeals court on Thursday.

Nearly three dozen people sued the tribe in federal court in hopes of getting on the membership roll. The plaintiffs also wanted the Interior Department to force the tribe to take action.

Most membership cases are dismissed by federal courts due to tribal sovereign immunity. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it didn't even have to address that issue.

Instead, the 9th Circuit said the plaintiffs failed to cite a source of law that authorizes the federal court system to hear their membership claims. So the three-judge panel dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

"To confer subject matter jurisdiction in an action against a sovereign, in addition to a waiver of sovereign immunity, there must be statutory authority vesting a district court with subject matter jurisdiction," Judge Arthur L. Alarcón wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The decision means it would probably take an act of Congress to address what has become a hot button issue in California. Upwards of 2,000 California Indians have been kicked off the membership rolls while countless others, like the plaintiffs in the Table Mountain case, have been prevented from seeking membership for various reasons.

A group called the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization, which was created by former members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, is trying to resolve the controversy. AIRRO wants Congress to amend the Indian Civil Rights Act to establish subject matter jurisdiction in federal courts for tribal membership disputes.

In July, the Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party passed a resolution in support of the cause. But the proposal came under heavy attack from other California Indian leaders when the state party met the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The resolution "will undermine the rights of tribal governments," Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians, said an e-mail to Indian Democrats earlier this month.

Despite the highly-charged atmosphere, the 9th Circuit has appeared sympathetic to membership claims. In a 2005 decision involving some of the same plaintiffs in yesterday's case, the court acknowledged that the tribal membership process can be unfair.

"Although their claim to membership appears to be a strong one, as their father is a recognized member of the tribe, their claim cannot survive the double jurisdictional whammy of sovereign immunity and lack of federal court jurisdiction to intervene in tribal membership disputes," the court said in September 2005.

But the 9th Circuit has effectively closed off every avenue to pursue tribal membership claims. The court has rejected cases based on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the California Rancheria Act and Public Law 280, which granted civil and criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country to the state.

The Table Mountain Rancheria was terminated by the California Rancheria Act. In a lawsuit during the Reagan administration, the tribe was restored to recognition and the Interior Department oversaw the re-establishment of the tribe's governing body and its membership roll.

The plaintiffs in yesterday's case tried to reopen the old lawsuit in hopes of adding themselves to the roll. But the 9th Circuit said federal court jurisdiction expired in 1984 under a settlement between the tribe and Interior. The court also said nothing in federal law requires Interior to intervene in membership disputes.

Members of the Table Mountain Rancheria are entitled to a share revenues from the successful Table Mountain Casino in Fresno County. With fewer than 100 on the roll, each person receives an estimated $350,000 a year.

Get the Decision:
Alvarado v. Table Mountain Rancheria (November 29, 2007)

9th Circuit Briefs:
Alvarado Opening Brief | United States Response Brief | Tribal Response Brief | Alvarado Reply Brief

Lower Court Decision:
Alvarado v. Table Mountain Rancheria (July 28, 2005)

Relevant Links:
American Indian Rights and Resources Organization -
Table Mountain Casino -
Pechanga Tribal Disenrollment -
Tribal Corruption -

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