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High Court Looks Into Gaming Feud

Gambling: Move signals that panel may step into battle between California and some tribal groups.

March 18, 1997|From Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Clinton administration for its views in a high-stakes fight about what kinds of casino gambling states must consider permitting on Native American reservations.

The action signals that the court is seriously thinking about stepping into a battle between several tribal groups and the state of California about the boundaries of a federal law that requires states to negotiate tribal-state "compacts" for gambling on Native American land.

The dispute centers on how to interpret a federal law that says states must negotiate with tribes to permit types of gambling that are permitted under state law.

A San Francisco-based federal appeals court agreed with the state's argument that California officials need to negotiate only about specific types of gambling that are explicitly permitted by state laws for non-Indian groups.

A coalition of California tribes says that ruling is too restrictive and effectively negates much of Congress's purpose in permitting Native American casinos.

The tribes appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing for a broader interpretation that considers the overall public policy of a state toward gambling. That stance would permit a wider range of games on reservations if the state, for instance, runs a lottery or permits other types of gambling.

In a long-running battle over Native American casinos in California, for example, much of the focus has been on video gambling games that the state considers to be akin to slot machines, which are specifically prohibited by state law. The tribes counter that, if the video games are based on the generation of random winning numbers--in much the same way as a state-run lottery--they should be permitted because they aren't inconsistent with the broader public policy of the state.

If the high court enters the case, a ruling could have an impact on companies that provide equipment or services to Native American casinos, including Sodak Gaming Inc., a South Dakota firm that sells electronic gambling equipment.

The justices today put off consideration of the appeal after asking the U.S. Solicitor General's office to submit a brief outlining the government's position. The Solicitor General is a Justice Department official who represents the United States in cases at the high court.

The battle is being led by the Sycuan Band of Mission Indians, a small tribe that runs a gambling operation on tribal land near San Diego.

"The state took the 'straightforward' position that, because the tribes' proposed gaming activities are unequivocally prohibited in California, they are not 'permitted' in California within the meaning of the [federal law]," the state says.

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