In a ruling that places state legislators squarely in the middle of the pitched debate over casinos on California's Indian reservations, a judge ruled Thursday that Gov. Pete Wilson does not have unilateral power to regulate tribal gambling in the state.
Although Wilson has the authority to negotiate agreements governing the operation of Indian casinos--as he did with the Pala Indians in March--so-called compacts between the state and tribes must be ratified by the Legislature, the judge ruled.
The decision, by Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly in Sacramento, came in a lawsuit filed by five state lawmakers. They argued that Wilson was usurping their authority by signing the Pala compact without their ratification. Connelly agreed, saying regulation of Indian casinos is beyond the governor's reach and a matter of state policy requiring legislative review.
Wilson had maintained that he has the power, as the state's chief executive, to negotiate and execute compacts allowing Indian casinos. But to cover his bet, his administration has promoted a bill that is intended to nonetheless give legislative blessing to the controversial Pala compact. The state Senate has approved the bill, but the chances of it passing an Assembly vote in the coming week are still uncertain.
"We disagree with the court's ruling but we don't think it will have any practical consequence since, from the start, we decided to seek legislative ratification of the compact," said Dan Kolkey, Wilson's legal affairs advisor. "We will continue to negotiate other tribal-state compacts and seek legislative ratification of them."
Nevertheless, Kolkey added, Wilson also plans to appeal the judge's decision.
Kolkey scolded the many tribes that continue to operate casinos with gambling machines that Wilson deems illegal, while at the same time "vigorously lobbying to kill a bill that would ratify" a compact.
The gaming devices commonly used at Indian casinos are considered illegal by Wilson--and U.S. attorneys in California--because they employ characteristics of Nevada-style slot machines, which are banned in California.
The Pala compact has been roundly criticized by some Democratic and Republican members of the Assembly's Governmental Organization Committee, which can refuse to send it to the Assembly floor for ratification.
The bill has been criticized by the tribes that operate the state's largest casinos. They complain that, among other things, the Pala compact unfairly limits the number of gambling machines they can operate--even though they were not party to the negotiations between Pala and Wilson.
The compact states that no tribe in California can have more than 975 electronic gambling devices and limits the total number of machines to 19,900 statewide. Other tribes--including some that now operate more than 1,000 machines--complain that the cap on the number of games unfairly restricts the potential income that their casinos can generate.
The Assembly committee, which was unable to muster enough support Monday to put the Pala compact to a vote, has scheduled a vote for Monday. Some committee members said there still are not enough votes to approve the compact.
Committee member Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who has steadfastly opposed the bill and was one of the lawmakers who sued Wilson, said politicians are frustrated that they cannot amend the Pala compact to better suit the complaining tribes, but rather can only accept or reject the terms negotiated by Wilson.
Battin said he didn't find fault in Wilson's role as negotiator--but said that is where his authority ends. "As the executive officer of the state, he is the one to negotiate matters between one domestic sovereign and another--the state and a tribe," Battin said. "But while he can make the deal, it takes the Legislature to approve it."
Another committee member, Joe Baca (D-Rialto), said he opposes the Pala compact because it attempts to dictate terms affecting the tribes in the state. He suggested that a compact more to everyone's liking could have been negotiated if one or more legislators had sat at the table with the governor and the Pala tribe.
"We all need to be at the table to come up with a compact that's fair to everyone," Baca said.
State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), another Pala compact opponent, said he expects legislators to avoid the ratification issue altogether and defer to the outcome of a November ballot measure sponsored by gambling tribes to win voter approval of the types of gambling now available in their casinos.
That initiative, which promises to pit the big money of Indian casinos against that of Las Vegas casinos, who fear its passage would cut into their business, calls for allowing the kind of gambling that exists in California without the government's blessing.
"Ultimately, we need to get [the issue] out of the halls of Sacramento, where everyone has an interest, and let the people decide," said Polanco, who was also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit resolved Thursday. "The judge's ruling will give politicians the comfort zone to leave it alone so the voters can decide."
The attorney for the Pala tribe said the ruling should have no impact on the tribe's plans to open a casino because, all along, the tribe was seeking legislative ratification.
"But this puts more pressure on the need for the bill," said the attorney, Howard Dickstein.
He said the opposing tribes have nothing to gain by defeating the Pala compact in Sacramento. "Defeat of the bill would deprive the Pala tribe of its ability to conduct gaming, but it has nothing whatever to do with [the other tribes'] ability to continue to conduct un-compacted gaming."
Those tribes, he said, still face enforcement action by U.S. attorneys, who have begun various legal procedures to shut down the estimated 14,000 gambling devices statewide that prosecutors, along with Wilson, deem illegal.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Nora Manella in Los Angeles, said her staff "will carefully review the decision to determine what impact, if any, the ruling has on our litigation and enforcement action."
He added, "The decision will not affect our basic position that un-compacted gaming is illegal."