Federal Court to Decide Fate of Indian Slot Machines


In a ruling that prompted claims of victory by both the champions and opponents of full-fledged Indian gambling in California, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld its earlier opinion that the state’s tribes cannot offer types of gambling that are not otherwise permitted in the state.

But the judges ordered a federal district court in Sacramento to specifically resolve once and for all whether California permits slot machines through its state lottery laws.

State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said the ruling supports Gov. Pete Wilson’s position that Indians are banned from offering slot machines on their reservations because state law explicitly bans slot machines.

But an attorney who represents many of the tribes said a March state appellate court ruling specifically allows the California Lottery to offer slot machines--as long as they don’t dispense currency or coins, or use fruit symbols or politicians’ caricatures as playing icons.


That state ruling, coupled with Friday’s federal court opinion, now compels state officials to negotiate agreements with Indian tribes to offer slot machines, said Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein.

About two dozen tribes in California defiantly offer about 8,600 of the disputed video gambling machines, which have become a financial bonanza for the tribes and come the closest to bringing a flavor of Las Vegas to California. Courts have ruled that the state has no jurisdiction to stop them, and federal authorities have been hesitant to crack down because of the ongoing litigation.

A California appellate court ruled in March that the state itself is permitted by its own lottery laws to allow keno games--which, the court ruled at the time, are the equivalent of slot machines. It later dropped the characterization of the Lottery’s keno games as equivalent to slot machines.

But state appellate judges still held that California lottery law allows the state to offer a wide range of gambling activities, including the kind of slot machines sought by Indian casinos, Dickstein said. Even if the state chooses not to offer slots, California’s tribes are entitled to offer them, he said.


But Steve Telliano, Lungren’s spokesman, said the state court’s opinion did not open the door for the state Lottery--or Indians--to introduce slot machines in California.

“The question [being returned to the lower federal court] is whether our keno is the same as a slot machine, and it’s not,” he said. While the state court ruling allows the California Lottery “to conduct what games it wants to,” it did not specifically allow slot machines, and other state laws ban their use, Telliano said.