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Supreme Court won't hear Pechanga membership case

An attempt to put enrollment matters before the U.S. Supreme Court failed on Monday when the justices rejected a lawsuit filed by former members of a prominent California tribe.

Without comment, the court refused to hear the pleas of more than 130 people who have been kicked out of Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, the owners of a highly successful casino. The former members argued that the tribe's enrollment committee broke Pechanga law by disenrolling them.

But in a decision that stands as a result of yesterday's move, the state courts in California will have to stay out of the controversial dispute. Although a judge in Riverside County had allowed the case to move forward, the tribe successfully petitioned an appeals court to halt the lawsuit before it went to trial.

In its August 2005 decision, the appeals said "we are persuaded that Congress did not intend that the courts of this state should have the power to intervene -- or interfere -- in purely tribal matters. Insofar as plaintiffs sue for violations of 'Pechanga Band Law,' it is for the Band to determine what that law is and whether or not it has been violated."

The lawsuit is just one of several that have tested the power of tribes to remove people from the rolls. In California, an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 have been disenrolled from tribes with hefty casino profits.

"When I first started, it was taboo in Indian Country to talk about them," said Jon Velie, one of the lawyers who represents the ousted Pechangas.

"It is an epidemic, it's one of the worst epidemics in Indian Country right now," said Velie at the Federal Bar Association's Indian law conference last month.

Marc Macarro, the chairman of the Pechanga Band, disagrees with Velie and the former tribal members. In a statement read at the conference, he said that most of the disenrollment cases have actually been reversed ever since the tribe adopted removal procedures in 1988.

The federal and state courts have sided with Macarro and other tribes. As recently as September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it wouldn't get involved in internal tribal matters such as enrollment no matter how fair or unfair the process might be.

The ousted Pechangas sought to get around tribal immunity issues by citing Public Law 280, the law that granted the state of California, and other states, civil and criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country.

The law did not divest tribes of their sovereignty. The lawsuits filed by the former Pechanga member say it can be used to resolve disputes between individual Indians. In their cases, they sued members of the Pechanga Band's enrollment committee rather than the tribe itself.

But the cases face dismissal since the federal and state courts are staying away. One lawsuit seeks $38 million in damages for casino per capita payments that the former tribal members lost as a result of their disenrolled.

The ousted Pechangas aren't giving up, however. John Gomez, the leader of one group of disenrollees, formed the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization in hopes of seeking more civil rights protections for individual Indians.

Disenrolled tribal members have staged protests at the California Nations Indian Gaming Association's annual conference and at the State Capitol. On Saturday, they met for AIRRO's first annual membership meeting in hopes of coming up with strategies to address what they call are violations of their basic rights.

Case Documents:
Salinas v. LaMere (Native American Rights Fund)

California Appeals Court Decision:
Lamere v. Superior Court (August 8, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Pechanga Tribal Disenrollment -, Disenrollment site -