Editorial: How far does tribal sovereignty go?

"When is a slot machine not a slot machine? That's a question at the crux of a dispute between two area Indian bands and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that could have ramifications for tribes up and down the state and greatly alter the relationship between tribes and state government for generations.

While the root of the question may be technical, the dispute goes much deeper and revolves around the question of Indian sovereignty that has vexed governments and courts for the better part of two centuries. The Pechanga and Morongo Indian bands, both of which have recently expanded their lucrative casinos, have populated those expansions with new machines. The governor's office maintains those machines put both tribes in violation of the agreements they signed with Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 after voters authorized expanded tribal gambling, which limit tribes to 2,000 slot machines.

Pechanga tribal Chairman Mark Macarro maintains the machines are legal because they are technically "video lottery" machines, which share a common computerized "brain," while true slot machines are self-contained. The agreements ---- known as compacts ---- permit the tribes to have an unlimited number of lottery devices. But Schwarzenegger's office points out that the compacts also specify those machines cannot look like slot machines, which the devices clearly do. The distinctions may be real in a technical sense, but are minimal in any other sense.

Still, that technical distinction may be enough to sway a court, where this dispute is very likely headed. Whatever the court decides ---- and years of appeals are certain; too much money is at stake ---- the underlying issues remain and will likely never be settled unless both sides sit down and talk, and unless both sides are willing to bend a little."

Get the Story:
Our view: A question of sovereignty (The Californian 11/28)