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Tohono O'odham Nation Continues Defending Plans for West Valley Casino; Opponents' Lawsuits Haven't Let Up

An artist rendering of the Tohono O'odham Nation's proposed westside casino
An artist rendering of the Tohono O'odham Nation's proposed westside casino

A U.S. District Court judge has scheduled a hearing on April 9 in an ongoing legal battle to block the Tohono O'odham Nation from building a casino in the West Valley.

Despite several back-to-back legal victories for the Nation, its opponents are not backing down.

"Throughout this process, the Nation has played by the rules and provided the clear facts, resulting in nine straight favorable decisions from courts and federal agencies," Chairman Ned Norris said. "Both the truth and the law are on the Nation's side, as has been demonstrated again and again in the courts."

Franks' office did not return calls for comment.

See also: Gila River Indian Community Attacks Sister Tribe With Federal Lawsuit See also: Glendale Officials Ordered to Pay Tohono O'odham Nation's Legal Fees See also: Wanna Bet? The Tohono O'odham Want to Build a West Valley Casino

U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell is weighing two key issues regarding the lawsuit filed by the State of Arizona, the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community against the Tohono O'odham Nation (TON) in early 2011.

One is whether land the Nation owns near 91st and Northern avenues was obtained as part of a settlement agreement reached between the tribe and the federal government in 1986. That settlement was meant to replace tribal lands devastated by flooding after the feds built a dam near San Lucy, one of the Nation's reservations near Gila Bend.

It's unclear why this particular issue is part of this lawsuit since the U.S. Secretary of the Interior decided in August 2010 that he was required -- based on that 1986 legal settlement agreement -- to take the Nation's land into trust. (Taking land into trust essentially means converting it into a reservation for the tribe.)

At that time, the Gila River Indian Community filed a lawsuit, and Judge Campbell agreed with U.S. Department of Interior officials, ruling in favor of the Nation. Opponents appealed Campbell's ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but that court, too, sided with the Nation.

And yet, here is Judge Campbell again, considering it again.

A second issue before Campbell is whether permitting gaming on the tribe's West Valley property violates a gaming compact between tribes and the state that voters approved in 2002.

That compact outlines gaming-related details such as how many casinos and slot machines each tribe can operate, the number of card game tables and ATMs within each casino, and even how many people can sit at each poker or blackjack table.

The state and two other tribes claim that the Tohono O'odham leaders and representatives made comments made during hundreds of negotiation meetings between 1999 and 2002, agreeing there would be no more casinos in the Phoenix metro area.

The compact, however, doesn't actually say that. Or anything close to that.

Even if there had been some pinky-promise style of agreement, why wouldn't all parties involved and their hordes of attorneys make sure it was included in the gaming compact paraded in the public and approved by voters in 2002?

It wasn't a point lost on Campbell.

 

Consider a courtroom exchange in June 2011 between him and James P. Tuite, an attorney for the Gila River Indian Community:

The attorney told the judge they "have alleged sufficient facts to show that parties understood and endorsed the concept that a fundamental premise of the compact" was that no "new gaming facilities [would be] constructed in the Phoenix metropolitan area."

Campbell says it doesn't make sense to him.

"If that was a fundamental premise of this compact, it would have been a real easy thing to say that in the compact, right?" Campbell asked.

"Yes, Your Honor, that's true," the attorney replied. "But we think there are, based on allegations we made, good reasons to think that the parties didn't feel it necessary to spell that out."

The judge said that it was a "pretty surprising idea, in his mind, for parties represented by lawyers and who are negotiating a contract that will become a compact that has [a] ... clause that says that no other understandings, or agreements not in writing, will be enforceable."

He continues: "For somebody with that kind of a clause going into the compact [now] saying this other understanding is so fundamental that we don't have to say it just didn't make sense to me."

Such comments don't bode well for those desperate to quash plans for a West Valley casino.

That might be why, even as the lawsuit makes its way through court, Arizona Congressman Trent Franks' office issued a press release on January 18 saying that TON leaders were being "deceptive" and "betrayed the trust."

Seems like Franks is trying to drum up support to revive a narrow, anti-casino bill he proposed in June 2012.

Franks' bill (H.R. 2938) was tailored to prohibit casino-style gaming on the Nation's West Valley land by altering the law passed by Congress in 1986 granting the Nation the right -- and the money -- to purchase reservation lands to replace those lost in the San Lucy floods.

The House of Representatives approved Franks' bill, but it never got a hearing in the Senate. Attempts to alter such an agreement with a tribe is something that hasn't happened in modern history, representatives for the TO note.

Norris said that the "opposition's willingness to say and do anything to protect their market share is well-documented. This is merely their latest attempt at misinformation and it will prove as unsuccessful as it has before."

He said they "anticipate yet another favorable ruling."


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