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Indians Gain in Bid to Expand Gambling Games : Casinos: Judge tentatively approves request for Las Vegas-style machines on reservations. State officials promise an appeal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a decision that a state attorney warned could lead to a “landscape dotted with casinos,” a federal judge Friday tentatively upheld a bid by California’s Indian tribes to substantially expand commercial gambling on their lands.

With his courtroom packed with representatives of 16 reservations, U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell sided with tribal attorneys who have been arguing for more than a year that technology used in the state’s lottery--particularly in the new Keno game--opened the door for Indians to offer video slot machines, blackjack and possibly other Las Vegas-style gambling.

Burrell’s tentative ruling drew impassioned arguments from Deputy Atty. Gen. Manuel M. Medeiros. He cautioned that there were profound implications in allowing full-scale casinos in a state whose Constitution prohibits Las Vegas-style gambling halls.

The judge suggested that such an argument was undermined by the state’s increasing embrace of legalized gambling.

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“At least some of the games the (tribes) propose seem indistinguishable from games offered by the state lottery,” Burrell said. “The Keno game appears to have many of the attributes of a slot machine.”

After a three-hour hearing, Burrell said he would take the legal arguments into account before issuing a written ruling. But his oral opinions were enough to draw promises of an appeal from the state’s attorneys and cautious celebration among tribal officials, who had traveled from throughout California for the court session.

“I think we kicked their butts,” said Mark Nichols, the non-Indian chief executive officer of the Cabazon band of Mission Indians.

It was Cabazon’s legal challenge to California’s bingo regulations that produced the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set the stage for burgeoning Indian gambling nationwide. The next year, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, endorsing the right of Indians to offer high-stakes versions of any form of gambling legal in their state.

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Friday’s hearing was on four lawsuits filed by 16 California tribes last year. The Indians complained that the governor’s office refused to consider many types of games during negotiations of tribal-state compacts required under the act to regulate the gambling.

Many tribes operate large bingo halls, poker rooms and off-track betting parlors with the state’s blessing. But the tribes’ request for a variety of video gambling machines--the centerpieces of most major casinos--produced a standoff.

State officials have complained that the slot-type devices, while money-makers, are prohibited by the California Constitution and federal law. Last week, Gov. Pete Wilson rejected a proposal by the tribes to settle the lawsuits through a compromise that would have allowed some machines, reportedly including ones that play electronic poker.

Burrell seemed impressed with the argument of one prominent tribal attorney, Jerome Levine, that the “entire fabric” of state gambling laws made such fine line-drawing ill-advised.

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“What’s being proposed is not against the public policy of the state,” Levine said. “California is in this business feet first.”

If Burrell orders the state to negotiate to allow the gambling machines, California will be only the latest in a series of states to find itself pushed toward casino gambling--at least on Indian lands--by federal courts.

After a judge ruled that Connecticut was negotiating in bad faith with the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, the Indians were able to open what may be the largest casino in America outside of Nevada and New Jersey. In January, Connecticut officials agreed to allow slot machines in the casino provided the state gets 25% of the take--a share expected to top $100 million in the next fiscal year.

In Arizona, Gov. Fife Symington on Friday signed emergency legislation outlawing charity “casino nights” after a federal court arbitrator cited those in a ruling declaring that three tribes, as a consequence, should be allowed to operate up to 2,600 slot machines each, along with poker, blackjack and craps. Much as in California, attorneys for the Indians argued that by legalizing many types of gambling--even only for nonprofit charities--the state had relinquished its right to object to the tribes’ bids.

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Many experts on Indian law expect such issues to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

Also under considerable pressure is the Clinton Administration’s newly installed Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt. He has been trying to find a position that will satisfy Indians looking for new revenue and state officials who say the gambling is getting out of control.

Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, at first said his home state had “clearly opened the door” to wide-ranging casino gambling on Indian lands. But in a letter to Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, Babbitt insisted that he had not made up his mind on the issue and noted that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gives “a primary and substantial role” to the states.

Babbitt has scheduled a meeting in Washington on Monday with Symington, Miller and the governors of Colorado and Kansas to explain his position. He then will meet with tribal representatives Tuesday in a bid to find a consensus, a spokesman said.

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The hearing drew representatives of most tribes at the forefront of Indian gambling in California. They included the Sycuan band of Mission Indians, who operate a 55,000-square-foot gaming center east of San Diego, and the San Manuel band, which has one of the most profitable Indian bingo halls in the nation on a hillside above San Bernardino.

Also represented was the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla Indians, who last year announced a joint venture with Caesars World to bring a casino to Palm Springs.

Before the court session, some tribal representatives picketed in front of the courthouse with signs saying: “Support Indian Gambling.” One chanted: “Keep me off welfare.”

The court session included several debates over the definition of a casino. Though the state Constitution says California cannot have casinos such as those in New Jersey and Nevada, Burrell complained that the term was never clearly defined in state law--and that he even consulted his dictionary.

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“Niceties aside, we all know what a casino is,” said Medeiros, the deputy attorney general.

“No we don’t,” the judge retorted.

“We do not license craps, we do not license roulette wheels. . . . We do not license slot machines,” the state’s attorney said. “We do not have casinos in California.”

Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who represents several tribes, said his clients were not seeking craps and roulette, though they have petitioned for blackjack tables and video gambling machines.

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“Sure, some of these games fit the definition of slot machines,” he said. But, he added, they were only equivalents of what the state generally allows its lottery to do with remote computer terminals or other devices.

Despite the heated debate in court, attorneys for both sides said they were willing to try to negotiate a settlement.

The tribes have insisted, at a minimum, on the right to use video machines that play faster-paced versions of the state’s Keno game--perhaps a game every five seconds to duplicate the instant gratification of a slot machine.

“Our reasons for wanting to compromise are to eliminate the uncertainties,” Dickstein said. “There are powerful political interests opposed” to Indian gambling. “While we have the upper hand today, we’re trying to take the long view of what’s in our interests.”

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Burrell did not say when he would issue his written opinion.


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