California Tribal Casino Gets Supreme Court Approval After 17-Year Wait

  • North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians got go-ahead to build casino in Madera County
  • In 2003, Mono struck deal with Station Casinos to develop and manage proposed facility
  • Supreme Court ruled governor “acted within his authority” in concurring two federal decisions
  • Mono’s casino and resort plans include 40 table games, 2,000 slot machines, 200-room hotel
  • Justice Cuéllar admitted CA law empowering Governor to concur falls within “zone of twilight”
flags of the US and California on masts facing each other
The California Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians building a casino in Madera County, a decision that comes after a protracted 17-year struggle. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Almost a decade of court cases

The California Supreme Court has given the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians the green light to build a casino in Madera County. The United Auburn Indian Community of the Auburn Rancheria v. Newsom ruling signals the end of an arduous journey for the Mono tribe.

process began in 2003

The process began in 2003, when the Mono Indians struck a deal with hotel and gaming operator Station Casinos to develop and manage the intended facility. In 2004, the tribe requested that the federal government take the proposed site in trust for the purpose of gaming.

Following federal review, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs requested then-California Governor Jerry Brown’s concurrence to proceed with the project in 2011. Brown eventually concurred in 2012. The United Auburn Indian tribe was one of a number of California tribes to subsequently oppose the Mono’s casino.

But yesterday, after hearing oral arguments initially submitted on June 2, 2020, the Supreme Court rendered its written decision. It ruled that Gov. Brown “acted within his authority when he concurred in a pair of federal decisions in 2011 that led to the approval of two so-called ‘off-reservation’ tribal gaming projects in Madera and Yuba counties.”

As Brown no longer holds office, current Governor Gavin Newsom was substituted as defendant and respondent, following the California Code of Civil Procedure 368.5.

End of a journey

North Fork Rancheria tribal chair Elaine Bethel-Fink said in a press release posted on Facebook that members of her tribe and the local community had been denied the rewards of tribal gaming for “far too long”. The perks, she added, included:

billions of dollars in economic benefits and thousands of jobs.”

Most US tribes rely heavily on income from casinos. During only two weeks of COVID-19 restrictions in April, it was estimated that tribal casino closures resulted in $4.4bn in lost economic activity across the country.

Ultimately, Bethel-Fink said the tribe was thrilled that the court had “finally decided this case in our favor”. KSEE24 News tweeted the announcement featuring an artist’s 2005 rendering of the proposed Mono casino:

The North Fork Rancheria Hotel & Casino Resort will be built alongside California Highway 99, near the Madera Municipal Airport. It plans to include 40 table games, 2,000 slot machines, and a 200-room hotel.

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians counts over 2,200 tribal citizens. It is a federally recognized tribe, with government offices in Madera County.

Legal twilight zone

Bethel-Fink said the Mono were delighted that the “long drawn out drama” was finally over. She also asserted that the tribe strongly believed that “only federal law controls the gaming eligibility of our trust lands.”

California laws are pretty murky in this sense. In a written Opinion of the Court, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar admitted that the Governor’s concurrence falls within a “zone of twilight”. One main grey area is that California’s Constitution permits executive and legislative prerogatives to coexist in regard to tribal gaming.

According to Cuéllar, legislation on the matter necessitates “nuanced interpretation”.