An aerial view of Elk Grove, California, shows the area where the Wilton Rancheria plans to build a $400 million casino. The existing structures are a part of an outlet mall where construction is expected to resume along with the casino. Image: Google Earth

Wilton Rancheria wins court decision in favor of long-awaited casino

A federal judge has sided with the Wilton Rancheria, rejecting a challenge to the tribe's long-awaited casino project in northern California.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the tribe's land-into-trust application on January 19, 2017, the last full day of the Obama administration. Opponents cried foul in federal court, claiming the official who made the decision wasn't authorized to do so.

Only the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- a position that was vacant at the time -- is allowed to make fee-to-trust decision, the opponents charged. Larry Roberts, the official who approved the Wilton Rancheria's application, was serving as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, they noted.

Judge Trevor McFadden disagreed with those arguments. In a 27-page decision issued on Thursday, he said Roberts was allowed to take action under federal law and regulation.

"Mr. Roberts, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, was authorized to exercise the AS-IA’s non-exclusive authority, including the authority to make final fee-to-trust decisions," McFadden wrote.

Though it's possible opponents could appeal, the decision clears yet another major hurdle for tribe, whose federal status was restored in 2009 after being illegally terminated in the 1950s. The tribe already finalized an agreement with the city of Elk Grove for the casino, as well as a Class III gaming compact with the state of California.

"We are grateful to the United States government for defending and upholding their federal trust responsibility to our tribe and for protecting our inherent right to have tribal trust lands, not only for now, but for generations to come," Chairman Raymond "Chuckie" Hitchcock said in the statement to The Sacramento Bee.

Plans call for a $400 million casino a 35-acre site. The casino will be the closest tribal facility to Sacramento, the state capital.

The last person to hold the title of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs was Kevin Washburn, who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. He left the position vacant in January 2016, when Roberts, who is a citizen of the Oneida Nation, took over in an "acting" capacity.

A federal law known as the Federal Vacancies Reform Act limits the time period for which Roberts could hold the "acting" title. So when his 210 days expired, he remained in charge of the BIA, but under his position as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, which he held up until President Donald Trump took office on January 20, 2017.

Trump has since nominated Tara Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. However, she has yet to secure a confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, who typically work in a non-partisan fashion, have not publicly said why they haven't taken action on her nomination. But Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who would be Sweeney's boss, said questions have been raised about her background.

"To say that you can't be a Native Alaskan to represent Native Alaskans is unconscionable," Zinke told the National Congress of American Indians during its winter session in Washington, D.C,. last month. "It's like saying the only people that can't represent the [tribal] nations are the nations. That's exactly opposite."

"I have confidence in Tara and we're doing everything we can to get her in there and to get her through," Zinke, the leader of the Department of the Interior, said on February 13.

If confirmed by the Senate, Sweeney would be the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. There been 12 confirmed Assistant Secretaries since 1977.

Prior to the creation of the Assistant Secretary position, the late Morris Thompson, who was Alaska Native, led the BIA from from 1973–1976. He held the title of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which did not require Senate confirmation.

Read More on the Story:
Elk Grove casino clears key legal hurdle as judge dismisses lawsuit (The Sacramento Bee March 1, 2018)
Opponents of California Casino Defeated in Washington (Courthouse News Service March 1, 2018)

Federal Register Notice:
Indian Gaming; Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compacts Taking Effect in the State of California (January 22, 2018)

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