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California tribe drops campaign contribution lawsuit

A prominent California tribe has agreed to abide by state campaign finance laws in a move that avoids a U.S. Supreme Court showdown.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians entered into a settlement with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. The tribe will report all of its campaign contributions to the agency after losing a ruling before the state's highest court.

The tribe was planning to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court but agreed to drop the appeal under the settlement. A negative ruling could have affected other tribes, whose campaign contributions at the state and federal level have been rising over the past decade.

Thanks to Indian gaming, the Agua Caliente Band has been politically active, with over $20 million in donations at issue in the case. Although the tribe was not shy about publicity -- the contributions were listed on its website -- the FPPC sued because the money wasn't reported under state laws.

This past December, the state Supreme Court said the tribe could be sued without its consent. State sovereignty trumps tribal sovereignty, the court said in a 4-3 ruling.

The tribe asked the court to reconsider but the request was denied, prompting the start of the Supreme Court petition process in May. No briefs were filed but other tribes were paying attention to the case and some had supported the Agua Caliente Band at the state court level.

California tribes have consistently ranked among the top political spenders at the federal level. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, seven of the top tribal donors were from the state in the 2006 election cycle.

The Agua Caliente Band's contributions have decreased since the Jack Abramoff scandal broke -- the tribe was one of the convicted lobbyist's top clients. But the tribe still made the top 20 in 2006 with $182,000 in donations to federal campaigns, down from $244,708 in the 2004 election cycle.

At the state level, the tribe has spent millions on candidates and on ballot referendums. In 2004 alone, the tribe spent $6 million to promote an Indian gaming proposition that was rejected by state voters.

Tribal Campaign Contributions:
2006 Election Cycle | 2004 Election Cycle

Supreme Court Docket Sheet:
Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Superior Court of California (No. 06A1047)

California Supreme Court Decision:
Caliente Band etc. v. Super. Ct (December 21, 2006)

Lower Court Decisions:
FPPC V. Santa Rosa Indian Community (October 27, 2004) | Agua Caliente Band v. FPPC (March 3, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians -
Fair Political Practices Commission -