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Law
California court rejects Pechanga enrollment case


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 - http://www.tribal-institute.org/lists/pl280.htm
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians - http://www.pechanga.com
Pechanga Tribal Disenrollment - http://www.pechanga.info
Bureau-of-Indian-Affairs.com, Disenrollment site - http://www.bureau-of-indian-affairs.com