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California and the West

Judge Seeks Feedback on Casino Workers

Court: He asks U.S., tribes for information. He plans to bar video slots at nine casinos but expresses concern for employees.


Expressing concern about the fate of Indian casino jobholders, a federal judge Tuesday sought feedback from tribal lawyers and federal prosecutors on how to implement a pending injunction on video slot machines.

U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts made clear that he intends to issue the injunction, but said he first wants proposals on how to put the ruling into effect in a "humanitarian" way.

"If anyone has an ounce of decency, when you're dealing with someone's paycheck, you don't say you've got to be gone tomorrow," Letts said at a packed hearing in Los Angeles federal court.

The injunction would cover video slot machines, operated by nine Southern California Indian tribes; Gov. Pete Wilson has declared the machines illegal under state law.

Letts asked both sides to submit briefs by Sept. 24.

He said he wanted to issue a detailed written ruling as soon as possible so it can be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I do think we should get the appellate process underway," Letts said. "The sooner we can get this situation clarified the better off everyone will be."

Letts is one of four federal judges in California who are considering injunctions sought by Justice Department lawyers.

The U.S. attorneys in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento filed suit earlier this year to seize video slot machines at Indian casinos that have not negotiated compacts with the state.

Federal law calls for Indian tribes and states to enter into compacts defining what kind of gambling is permissible at reservation casinos and how it should be regulated.

State authorities contend that the video slot machines, a main source of revenue for the Indian tribes, are illegal because players bet against the house.

Eleven tribes, mostly from Northern California, have signed compacts with the state and have agreed to use a video machine game, still in development, in which players bet against each other as in a lottery.

The nine tribes that would be affected by Letts' impending ruling have balked at signing such a compact, contending that the state has been negotiating in bad faith. They are particularly irked because Wilson has insisted that they first agree to stop using video slot machines.

In remarks from the bench Tuesday, Letts said the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 anticipated that all unapproved gambling would stop a year after the measure was enacted. That never happened. In fact, many tribes installed more video slot machines after the law was passed.

Letts said that put the state at a disadvantage in negotiating a compact with the tribes. "That cannot be," he added, if the federal Indian gambling law is to survive.

The tribes being sued in the Los Angeles case are the Agua Caliente, Santa Ynez, Cabazon, Cahuilla, Morongo, Pechanga, San Manuel, Soboba and Twentynine Palms.

In a tentative ruling last July, Letts had given the tribes until Tuesday to reach agreements with the state, saying that, if they did not, he would issue a permanent injunction against using the video slots.

He backed away from such abrupt action Tuesday, repeatedly citing his concern about the Indian casino employees, some of whom attended the hearing.

"We're talking about the public interest here," he said, "about making sure that people don't suffer more than they have to."

Letts also took note of the fact the Indian tribes had placed a measure on the November ballot, Proposition 5, that could change the complexion of the legal debate over video slot machines.

If approved, the ballot measure would allow the continued use of video slot machines that are now deemed illegal by the state.

In the end, Letts said, the issue will be decided by a higher court.

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