Havasu Landing Casino

Guests pump the slot machines at Havasu Landing Casino, which opened back up with new safety measures.

HAVASU LANDING, CALIF. -- The Chemehuevi Indian Tribe scored a big win against the State of California this week.

A federal district court ruled in favor of five California tribes, including the Chemehuevi, which sued the state of California for acting in bad faith when it negotiated the state’s gaming compact. The court ordered the state and the tribes to renegotiate the gaming compact within 60 days.

Sierra Pencille, chairwoman of the Chemehuevi Tribe, said the ruling from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Case came as a relief.

“After multiple closures this past year as a result of covid, it is an incredible relief that the court granted the Tribe’s motion for summary judgment and we now have one less worry going forward. We just hope that the Governor and state do not appeal this order.”

In 2019, the tribe opened its new casino and resort at Havasu Landing. A few months later, it was forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic. The casino and hotel operations are a major economic contributor to the tribe’s local economy, Pencille said.

The other tribes in the suit included the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians in Tuolumne County, Robinson Rancheria in Lake County, Hopland Band of Pomo Indians in Mendocino County, and Blue Lake Rancheria in Humboldt County.

The judge agreed with the tribes that the state violated federal law when it negotiated the gaming compact. Before a tribe can operate Nevada-style gambling, they are legally required to make a tribal-state gaming compact with the state they reside in according to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Congress allows states to negotiate in seven specific areas. A state can make demands that fall outside of the permitted topics, but not without offering a “meaningful concession to the tribes” that isn’t a right the tribe already has or a gaming concession.

The lawsuit said California illegally insisted that the new gaming compact include federally prohibited provisions such as requiring tribes to recognize state laws on minimum wage, discrimination, labor and the environment. The state also wanted the tribes to recognize California spousal and child support orders, as well as contribute to a state grant fund and subject tribal members to the jurisdiction of non-tribal local governments.

Chicken Ranch Rancheria Chairman Lloyd Mathiesen said his tribe had a compact that had worked well since 1999, and was hopeful a new compact could be negotiated quickly. “We tried, but after five years of negotiations it was painfully clear that the state wanted more from the Tribe than it had a right to ask for,” he said. “The state’s actions threatened our sovereignty. We had no choice but to resist, and litigation became our only option.”

According to the court order, the state must renegotiate the compact within 60 days. Attorney Lester J. Marston says the tribes plan to submit a compact to the state by April 23.

“During negotiations, the tribes took clear positions on what we believed were proper and improper subjects of negotiation, and those positions were based on what the law actually says and how courts have interpreted the law,” Marston said. “The state disagreed, but with this order, the federal court confirmed that the Tribes were right.”

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