A federal appeals court has rejected two Sacramento-area cities’ challenge of Interior Department decisions that resulted in the development of an Indian casino. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia ruled that the Interior Department acted within the meaning of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and a statute that provided federal recognition to the United Auburn Indian Community.

The cities of Roseville and Rocklin argued that the Interior Department could not provide land to the tribe for a casino unless the agency determined the casino would not be detrimental to surrounding communities and the agency received the consent of the governor. The Interior Department did not have to take those steps when it accepted into trust 49 acres along Highway 65 on the outskirts of Roseville and Rocklin. The tribe opened the Thunder Valley Casino — California’s largest — on the site earlier this year.

In reaching its conclusion, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel read the federal legislation broadly. The court ruled that the IGRA and the law that established the United Auburn Indian Community encouraged economic development and tribal self-sufficiency, and that the cities’ narrow legal interpretation would thwart those goals.

About 250 survivors of the Maidu and Meiwok Tribes comprise the Auburn Indian Band. Until 1967, the band, known as the Auburn Rancheria, had a 40-acre reservation in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Auburn. During the 1960s, as part of the then-federal policy of assimilating Indians, Congress withdrew recognition of the tribe and distributed the reservation lands to individuals.

Congress restored the Auburn Band in 1994, when lawmakers passed the Auburn Indian Restoration Act. The law authorizes the secretary of the Interior to take into trust for the tribe the former reservation lands and other lands anywhere in Placer and neighboring counties.

In 2000, the tribe asked the secretary to accept 49 acres of grasslands along Highway 65, several miles north of Interstate 80, so the tribe could build a casino. The cities of Roseville and Rocklin opposed the application, arguing that a casino would increase crime, interfere with planned residential development and harm the family-oriented nature of the area. The cities also argued that, under the IGRA, the secretary could not permit gambling on the site without determining there would be no negative impact on surrounding communities and getting the governor’s consent. Casinos proposed for lands acquired for Indians after the 1988 effective date of IGRA require those steps, the city contended. The Interior Department, however, ruled that the land was exempt from the IGRA’s conditions on sites acquired since 1988 because the site was "restoration lands."

The cities sued but a federal district court agreed with the Interior Department’s application of the "restoration lands" exception. The cities appealed and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the lower court.

The cities contended that restoration lands must be either territory in a former reservation or lands nearly identical to the former reservation. The cities said the casino site was 40 miles from the former rancheria site and that the valley site was unlike the wooded foothills where the rancheria had been located. The tribe and the federal government countered that "restoration" also encompassed "restitution," a notion accepted by the appellate court.

"That a ‘restoration of lands’ could easily encompass new lands given to a restored tribe to re-establish its land base and compensate for historical wrongs is evident here, where much of the Auburn Tribe’s Rancheria is, as a practical matter, unavailable to it," Judge Judith Rogers wrote for the court. The IGRA "refers to the restoration of ‘lands,’ not to the restoration of a ‘reservation.’ The Maidu and Meiwok Tribes from which the Auburn Tribe descended once occupied much of central California. For the cities to now argue that the 49 acres are a windfall, as if the Tribe’s ancestors had never possessed any more, is ahistorical. Given the history of Indian tribes’ confinement to reservations, it is not reasonable to suppose that Congress intended ‘restoration’ to be strictly limited to land constituting a tribe’s reservation immediately before federal recognition was terminated."

The cities argued that, had the tribe’s recognition not ended during the 1960s, the tribe, under the IGRA, would not now be allowed to gain access to the 49 acres for development of a casino. But the court ruled that what the cities considered an unfair benefit for the tribe was entirely fair. "Had the Auburn Tribe never been terminated, it would have had opportunities for development in the intervening years," the court ruled. "A ‘restoration of lands’ compensates the Tribe not only for what it lost by the act of termination, but also for opportunities lost in the interim."

The IGRA and the 1994 law that restored federal recognition both promote tribal economic development and self-sufficiency, the court continued. "A reading [of IGRA] allowing the Auburn Tribe to participate in that economic base furthers this purpose of IGRA while a reading that confines ‘restoration lands’ to the old reservation, the Rancheria, (most of which is now in the hands of homeowners, many non-Indian, and hence unavailable for development) would likely deny the Tribe this opportunity," Rogers wrote.

The Case:
City of Roseville v. Norton, U.S. District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals No. 02-5277. Filed November 14, 2003

The Lawyers:
For Roseville: William P. Horn, Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot, (202) 659-5800.
For the United Auburn Indian Community: Seth P. Waxman, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, (202) 663-6800.
For Norton: Elizabeth Ann Peterson, Department of Justice, (202) 514-2000.