Long running fight over California casino moves forward

WASHINGTON — Butte County officials on Tuesday won a critical legal victory in their long-running fight against a proposed tribal casino near Chico.

Thwarting the Mechoopda Tribe's gaming ambitions, a divided appellate court ruled that Bush administration Interior Department officials were "arbitrary" in their 2008 decision to allow the new casino on land outside of the tribe's original rancheria.

In a 2-1 decision replete with competing literary references, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals further concluded the Bush administration failed to adequately justify its decision not to revisit the casino approval despite strong evidence.

"It had all the explanatory power of the reply of Bartelby the Scrivener to his employer: 'I would prefer not to,' " Judge Arthur Raymond Randolph wrote. "Which is to say, it provided no explanation."

Randolph was referring to Herman Melville’s 1853 novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” whose title character declines to do much of anything but never really explains why.

Not to be outdone, Judge Judith W. Rogers enlivened her dissent with footnoted references to the Greek poet Homer. A former member of the California Supreme Court, Rogers argued the Interior Department’s green light for the Mechoopda Tribe was “supported by substantial evidence.”

The tribe is attempting to develop the new casino along with Station Casinos, a Las Vegas firm that has also attempted to develop a Madera County casino for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. Station Casinos is currently in bankruptcy court, with uncertain consequences for the proposed casinos.

Both casino proposals involve the tribe buying land outside of the original rancheria. Such land must be located within the areas historically occupied by the tribes.

The Mechoopda Tribe traces its geographic roots to a large 19th century ranch near the center of Chico. In 2001, the tribe purchased 645 acres near Highway 99 and Highway 149, with plans of having the Interior Department take the land into trust so a casino could be built.

The proposed casino would have about 500 slot machines and 10 gaming tables.

In 2003, a federal official concluded the tribe had a “historical and cultural nexus” to the 645-acre parcel. Butte County objected.

"As the county saw it, the tribe…from whom the modern tribe is descended, was not the same tribe as the historic tribe that had allegedly occupied the gaming site," Randolph noted.

County officials submitted a Lewis and Clark College professor's study of the tribe. Interior Department officials nonetheless declared in 2006 that "we are not inclined to revisit this decision now," and in 2008 the department formally agreed to let the casino proceed.

The appellate court panel concluded that the Interior Department failed to "articulate a satisfactory explanation" for its action, and was arbitrary in its refusal to consider the Lewis and Clark College professor’s study.

“I think the court got it right,” said Bruce Alpert, county counsel for Butte County.

Alpert said he expects the Interior Department will now take another look at the casino proposal, when officials will have to consider seriously county’s arguments and historical documentation.