Supreme Court Ruling Raises Richmond Casino Questions
By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 25, 2009
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Fund for Local Reporting! A U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down
Tuesday raises new questions about the fate of two Richmond area casino
But Berkeley entrepreneur James D. Levine, backer of the proposal for a
$1.5 billion resort at Point Molate, said his lawyers have advised him
that the ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar appears to pose no threat to the
The case before the court involved the purchase of 31 acres by the
Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island as a site to build housing. The
secretary of the Interior Department, the agency responsible for
relations with federally recognized tribes, agreed to take the land into
trust for the tribe.
Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri filed a legal challenge, and new
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar had become the defendant by the
time the decision was reached.
The Supreme Court overturned the Department of the Interior decision,
ruling that the government had no authority for the action because the
tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934, when the Indian
Reorganization Act, which grants the interior secretary power to acquire
and hold land for Indians, was passed.
That action is the critical first step before tribes can build casinos
on the land. Subsequent steps involve approval by the National Indian
Gaming Commission and the negotiation of a gambling compact with the
While the Narragansetts were granted federal recognition in 1983, the
court ruled that federal recognition at the time the 1934 law was passed
was the critical date, and that the law didn’t apply to tribes
That raises an interesting legal issue and some uncertainty, because
while both tribes proposing Richmond casinos had been federally
recognized at the key date in 1934, the federal government later
stripped them of recognition, restoring it only later.
Both the Scotts Valley Pomos, would-be developers of the Sugar Bowl
casino in North Richmond, and the Guidiville Rancheria Pomos, the tribe
that would have its reservation at Point Molate, appear to have been
federally recognized at the time of the law’s passage.
Both tribes lost their recognition after Congress passed the California
Rancheria Act in 1958 during an era when the Bureau of Indian Affairs
was trying to force Native Americans into cities in an effort to
“mainstream” smaller tribes. During the same period, the young of larger
tribes were removed to BIA boarding schools with the same goal in mind.
The Guidivilles lost federal recognition in 1961, “but Guidiville was
recognized before 1934,” so the decision would not apply to the tribe,
Levine said. The tribe was restored in 1986, and with full recognition
in 1992, the group was granted 44 acres near Ukiah, according to the San
Diego State University online database of California tribes.
The two tribes lost all or most of their land after the loss of
The Scotts Valley Pomos were restored in 1991, but without a land base,
the tribe lost its rancheria status the following year. The tribe is now
formally known as the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians of the Sugar
Bowl Rancheria, according to the San Diego State database.
While the Scotts Valley tribe has already finished its initial federal
environmental review, it didn’t undertake a state review—an omission
that has stalled the project thanks to a court victory by casino foes.
Stephan Volker, an environmental law attorney, won a courtroom victory
when a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge ruled the city had
breached the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to conduct
a review of environmental impacts of the implications of the November
2006 City Council decision to approve a 20-year agreement with the
He was not available for comment by deadline Wednesday.
The agreement promised the city $335 million over 29 years to provide
road improvements and emergency services for the North Richmond casino.
The city has appealed the decision by Contra Costa Superior Court Judge
Barbara Zuniga, who held that the city failed to conduct the legally
required review before signing the accord.
The Point Molate developers had conducted simultaneous federal and state
environmental reviews, though the documents have yet to see the light of
“I understand that they’d been completed,” Levine said Wednesday, “and
we’re waiting for their release. But the federal government has other
priorities right now, like saving the world from the mess these
investment bankers have made.”
Both tribes have been recruiting lobbyists to plead their cause before
Congress and the BIA.
According to federal records, the Guidivilles spent $40,000 on
Washington lobbying last year through the firm Hogan & Hartson,
Washington’s oldest law firm. (Coincidentally, even white shoe law firms
have been hard hit by the economic crisis, with the National Law Journal
reporting Feb. 10 that Hogan & Hartson had just offered buyouts to 240
members of its staff.)
The Scotts Valley tribe shelled out even more, paying $80,000 to
Pennsylvania Avenue lobbyists Akermann Senterfitt and $70,000 to
Lovetsville, Virginia, lobbyists Franklin Creek Consulting.
One reason the Guidivilles may have needed to pay less is that one of
Levine’s partners in the casino project has his own impeccable political
connections. William S. Cohen straddles both sides of the political
fence as a former Republican governor of Maine and as secretary of
defense to Democrat Bill Clinton.
Doug Elmets, the Sacramento lobbyist who represents the Lytton Band of
Pomos, said the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t affect their already
existing facility, Casino San Pablo. That casino offers video bingo and
not the more traditional slots that would be featured at the other two
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she had initially heard that the
law might block the casino at Point Molate, but later heard conflicting
reports about the ruling’s applicability.
“I’m still strongly opposed to urban casinos,” she said Wednesday
afternoon. “I would rather we spend our efforts building strong and
healthy services and working to create a truly sustainable community,”
Approval of either or both of the two planned casinos would give the
East Bay California’s first full-scale metropolitan casino.
The Supreme Court decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas,
joined by five other justices. Two jurists wrote a partial dissent, with
only one justice, John Paul Stevens, in full dissent in favor of the