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California court rejects Pechanga enrollment case
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

More than 130 former members of a wealthy California tribe cannot use the state court system to challenge their removal, a panel of judges ruled on Monday.

In the first of two decisions on the controversy, the 4th District State Court of Appeal acknowledged the state's broad civil and criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country. Congress granted California that authority under Public Law 280.

But the law only applies to "private" disputes involving individual tribal members, the 13-page decision stated. Tribal membership, on the other hand, "goes to the heart of tribal sovereignty" and isn't covered, the court said in a dispute involving the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

"Here, plaintiffs are effectively asking this court to interfere with the band's determination of 'Who is a Pechanga?' and that decision would unavoidably have substantial and continuing effects on the band's self-governance," Judge Betty Ann Richli of the 4th District Court of Appeal wrote for the majority. "Congress cannot have had such an intent in enacting Public Law 280."

The ruling represents a victory for the Pechanga Band, the owners of a highly successful casino in southern California. The tribe successfully argued that its membership policy can't be challenged in state courts.

The plaintiffs, on the other hand, believe tribal officials who make enrollment decisions should be held accountable. They contend that the tribe, which distributes per capita payments from the casino to its members, has become too greedy.

It's a common charge in California, where tribal casinos bring in an estimated $5.3 billion a year. According to tribal activists, more than 1,000 Indians in the state have been taken off the tribal rolls or are being threatened with removal.

Millions are at stake in the battle. In a second lawsuit, the ousted Pechangas are asking for at least $38 million in damages, money they say they are owed because they were wrongly denied a monthly $15,000 per capita payment.

Yesterday's ruling could have an effect on the case. Although enrollment disputes have made it to the state court system, the Pechanga lawsuits are based on a novel interpretation of Public Law 280.

Rather than bringing the cases against the Pechanga Band itself, the plaintiffs sued individual tribal members deemed responsible for enrollment decisions. The strategy was aimed at avoiding a dismissal based on the tribe's sovereign immunity.

The 4th District judges didn't buy the argument, holding that the suit was indeed a direct challenge to the tribe's sovereignty. If the enrollment decision violated tribal law, it is up to the Pechanga Band to make that determination, the court said.

"In short, 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," Rachli wrote.

The judges acknowledged that the Pechanga Band lacks a court system that could handle such disputes. But the omission is an "inevitable consequence" of the tribe's sovereignty and only Congress can do something about it, the court concluded.

"Whether the potential for corruption in the system created by the influx of gambling wealth to some tribes would justify a change is not for us to decide," the court said. "If plaintiffs are unable to persuade the tribal council of the merits of their claims, so be it. The courts of this state have no power to intervene."

Congress passed Public Law 280 in 1953 during the height of the termination era. The goal was to rid the federal government of its responsibilities in Indian Country.

The law has been the subject of considerable dispute and only became effective in six states. Some of those states have since agreed to give up their jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis.

In California, the law was recently used by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to justify state jurisdiction over an Indian child welfare case. It was the first ruling of its kind.

In a high-profile case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, state officials used the law to justify a raid of a tribe's casino. The court declined to rule on the legality of the raid, leaving open the question of whether Public Law 280 applies to the actions of tribal governments.

Get the Decision:
Lamere v. Super. Ct. of Riverside (August 8, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Public Law 280 Resources -
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians -
Pechanga Tribal Disenrollment -, Disenrollment site -

Related Stories:
Disenrolled Pechangas seek $38M in damages (08/04)
Pechanga Band enrollment dispute closely watched (07/11)
Court hears Pechanga Band enrollment dispute (7/7)
McKosato: Greed behind ouster of tribal members (05/23)
Opinion: Gaming has turned tribes on other tribes (5/20)
Ousted Redding Rancheria members head to forum (5/19)
Forum calls attention to tribal disenrollments (5/18)
Family fights disenrollment from Sauk-Suiattle Tribe (5/18)
California AIM blames greed for mass disenrollments (5/16)
Editorial: Disenrollment becoming too common (04/01)
Ousted Pechangas file another lawsuit against tribe (03/28)
California tribe changes status of some members (3/28)
Pechanga Band avoids dedication of city park (03/09)
Woman ejected from Pechanga Band in despair (01/27)
County investigates shooting on Pechanga land (01/14)
State judge won't dismiss lawsuit over tribal enrollment (07/27)
Pechanga Band votes to retain Macarro as chairman (07/19)
Battle for top Pechanga post heats up before vote (7/16)
Disenrolled tribal members call for more oversight (07/15)
Ousted tribal members appeal to Pechanga council (07/02)
Pechanga chairman faces election challenge (07/02)
Judge weighs ruling in Pechanga disenrollment (04/20)
2,000 California Indians face disenrollment (04/14)
Pechanga descendants protest against enrollment policy (04/06)
Opinion: Greed, spite, history behind disenrollment (4/5)
Opinion: Calif. tribes disenrolling more people (4/1)
Pechanga tribal committee disenrolls 130 people (03/22)
Calif. judge waits on Pechanga enrollment dispute (02/18)
Calif. judge delays Pechanga Tribe's disenrollment (02/05)
Judge won't protect 130 from disenrollment (2/3)
Case tests Pechanga Tribe's right to disenroll 130 (02/02)
Adopted man protests exclusion Pechanga Tribe (01/15)
Pechanga tribe threatens to cut off newspaper (03/14)
Pechanga disenrollment campaign to continue (02/25)
Pechanga chairman surprised by his 'racist' statement (2/24)

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