DOI Wants Calif. County’s Tribal Casino Challenge Tossed

By: Josh Brodleit | December 03 2015

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Law360, Chicago (September 11, 2015, 6:52 PM ET) -- The U.S. Department of the Interior urged a D.C. federal judge Friday to toss a California county’s challenge to a Native American casino, saying that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria has a historical connection to the land approved for the casino’s construction.

In a move for summary judgment, the DOI said that it did not abuse its authority by placing 625 acres in Chico, California, in a National Indian Gaming Commission trust so that the Mechoopda could build a gaming facility.

Chico lies within Butte County, which has twice protested the project as lacking any historic ties to the tribe’s traditional lands. 

The DOI disputes that assertion, saying in a brief to the court Friday that the land in question lies eight miles from a pre-Columbian Mechoopda village as well as being near various cultural and religious sites. The government said it considered Butte County’s objections to the historical designation in a second review of the project and still came to the conclusion that the project was valid.

“The 2014 decision must be upheld because the department properly defined the scope and process of the remand and because its decision, reached after a detailed and extensive historical review, was neither arbitrary nor capricious,” the DOI told the court.

This is the second time the case has been dragged into court. 

Following the DOI’s original decision in 2008, the D.C. Circuit agreed with Butte County that the agency had failed to take into consideration an expert report submitted by the county that purports to show the land has no historical significance to the Mechoopda tribe.

The appellate court remanded the decision back to the agency, telling it to take a second look. The DOI says it did just that, accepting the expert report into evidence as well as other documents submitted by the county, but the county claims it was never given time to respond to new materials submitted by the tribe.

“For the second time, the defendants have approved trust acceptance for the proposed casino site based on an expert report submitted to Interior by the tribe without considering rebuttal materials of the county demonstrating the tribe’s lack of historical connection to the land at issue,” the county told the court last November.

The court is being asked to remand the 2014 decision for another review. The county has called the project "environmentally destructive."

The tribe, which has intervened in the suit, filed its own summary judgment motion on Friday, saying that the county expert's report has been "debunked" and that delaying a twenty year project any further would be unfair.

"Since it achieved restoration in 1992, the tribe has consistently sought to acquire a land-base that would enable it
to pursue the economic development that can support the tribe’s self-determination and self sufficiency," according to the motion. "Plaintiff’s current motion represents simply another example of the County’s continuing efforts to derail the tribe’s economic development plans."

Counsel for the county couldn't be reached for immediate comment Friday. 

Butte County is represented by Dennis J. Whittlesey, Scott R. Knapp and Patrick M. Sullivan of Dickinson Wright PLLC and Bruce S. Alpert of the county’s counsel office.

The government is represented by Laura L. Maul of the U.S. Department of Justice, Jennifer Turner and James V. DeBergh of the DOI and Maria Getoff of the NIGC.

The tribe is represented by Michael J. Anderson of Anderson Indian Law. 

The suit is Butte County v. Chaudhuri et al., case number 1:08-cv-00519, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

--Editing by Patricia K. Cole.