Judge upholds decision allowing Madera casino project

The Fresno BeeMarch 14, 2014 

Attached is an artist rendering of the proposed North Fork Rancheria Resort & Casino.


Gov. Jerry Brown and the federal government acted properly last year when they approved the compact that allows North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to build an "off-reservation" casino and hotel project, a Madera County judge said.

The ruling was finalized Wednesday by Judge Michael Jurkovich, who said the governor has the power to "negotiate and conclude compacts, subject to ratification by the Legislature," under the state Constitution.

"To hold otherwise would make the phrase 'negotiate and conclude' compacts meaningless," Jurkovich wrote in the ruling.

Opponents include Madera-area residents and Stand Up For California, a group challenging "off-reservation gaming." They said the governor's action usurped the power of the state Legislature. The Legislature approved the compact last summer.

The North Fork Rancheria and partner Station Casinos want to build a gaming complex with 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games and a hotel on 305 acres along Highway 99 near Avenue 18 just north of Madera. The proposed site is 36 miles from the rancheria.

The opponents said the North Fork project should not have been approved. The key issue, opponents say, is that the compact was negotiated before the land was taken into trust for the tribe.

But the judge said it makes no difference when those lands become American Indian lands, so long as the process complies with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Attorneys for Stand Up For California also tried to make a distinction between the government's definitions of Indian lands and tribal lands.

But the judge said the two words are "intended to have the same meaning."

Stand Up For California intends to appeal, director Cheryl Schmit said.

Schmit said the case has national implications.

"This is an important public policy question," she said. "You have gaming investors all over the nation watching, because if North Fork goes through, the state of tribal gaming will be totally unpredictable."

The lawsuit left one question unanswered -- whether a state referendum in November could nullify the compact.

In a new legal filing, lawyers for the North Fork Rancheria contend that the referendum -- which proposes to outlaw the gaming compact -- has no power.

The Secretary of State's Office stayed the compact until after the referendum vote. In a July letter, Secretary of State Debra Bowen said the part of the statute "ratifying the compact will be stayed/suspended until the voters have voted to either reject or adopt it."

But the tribe said it negotiated in good faith with the state and federal government. They are seeking a "judicial declaration that the pending referendum petition is invalid, void and unenforceable" because it alleges to stay the compact and to trigger an election that could revoke the compact.

"The tribe takes the position that the compact has taken effect under federal law, was published in the federal register and is in effect," said John Maier, one of the tribe's lawyers. "We recognize that the state may not take the same position."

But the latest legal move is designed to compel the state to put the compact into effect no matter whether voters support or reject the referendum, he said.

Opponents who gathered signatures for the statewide referendum say the casino project should not move forward because Proposition 1-A, passed 13 years ago, allows Indian gaming only on a tribe's originally restored lands.

It promises to be a spirited political campaign. More than $2.8 million was raised by casino opponents by the end of January, according to state financial disclosure forms.

North Fork's legal efforts to keep the casino project moving forward "is a frivolous lawsuit by desperate Las Vegas gaming interests who want to deny Californians the right to vote on the issue of off-reservation casinos," Schmit said. "They know that California voters will reject the North Fork Compact because it breaks the promise that tribal gaming would stay on established Indian land."

Hearings on North Fork's cross-complaint are expected later this year.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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