Judge backs BIA in long-running Buena Vista Band gaming fight

Artist's rendering of the proposed Buenavue Casino in Buena Vista, California. Image from Steelman Partners / Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians

The Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians has been trying to build a casino in northern California for more than 10 years but has been hindered by legal challenges.

Yet there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a long-running lawsuit that questioned whether the rancheria is actually a "reservation."

Officials in Amador County claimed it wasn't. But Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein noted that the county agreed to treat the tribe's lands as a "reservation" as part a federal recognition settlement in 1987.

"Here, the parties unambiguously stipulate that the rancheria 'shall be treated by the county . . . as any other federally recognized Indian reservation' and that 'all' federal laws that apply to Indians and Indian tribes will also apply to it," Rothstein wrote in the 18-page decision.

But even if that wasn't the case, Rothstein said the Secretary of the Interior Department has the power to determine whether the rancheria is a "reservation" for purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. On two occasions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the tribe's Class III gaming compacts, the judge noted.

The Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians is building a cultural center on its reservation in northern California. In a series of posts on Facebook, Chairwoman Rhonda Pope said Amador County has questioned the construction work. Photo from Facebook

"Given that Congress has unambiguously delegated to the Secretary the authority to determine whether land is a reservation for purposes of the IGRA (something the county does not dispute), the Secretary is entitled to summary judgment on this matter," Rothstein continued.

Amador County filed the lawsuit in 2005. It has resulted in two decisions from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, both of which required additional scrutiny by the federal court in Washington, D.C.

The case has been handled by two different judges: Rothstein and, previously, Richard W. Roberts, who resigned as chief judge of the court abruptly on Wednesday after being named in sexual harassment lawsuit, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Washington Post reported.

Roberts had sided with the BIA in the first round before being reversed by the D.C. Circuit. The case was then reassigned to Rothstein and the tribe tried to intervene, resulting in the second ruling in which the D.C. Circuit said the tribe waited too long to file the motion.

Separately, a group called Friends of Amador County questioned the tribe's federal recognition. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review it in December 2014.

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decisions:
Amador County v. Jewell (December 2, 2014)
Amador County v. Salazar (May 6, 2011)

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Friends of Amador County v. Jewell (January 29, 2014)

Related Stories:
Buena Vista Rancheria gets good and bad news in casino cases (12/03)
Court won't allow Buena Vista Rancheria in gaming land case (12/02)
Supreme Court won't hear Buena Vista Rancheria compact suit (12/01)
Buena Vista Rancheria wants to intervene in gaming land suit (10/10)
9th Circuit kills lawsuit over Buena Vista Rancheria compact (01/30)
9th Circuit hears Buena Vista Rancheria compact dispute (01/15)
Buena Vista Rancheria pulls $220M bond offer for casino plan (06/06)
Buena Vista Rancheria casino in limbo amid court challenge (05/09)
DC Circuit revives lawsuit over Buena Vista Rancheria casino (05/06)

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