SACRAMENTO — A state judge rejected Thursday an Indian tribe's claim of "sovereign immunity" from California campaign finance and lobbying laws, a ruling denounced by the tribe but hailed by others as a significant victory over a rising political powerhouse.
The 17-page ruling by a Sacramento Superior Court judge allows the state to proceed with a lawsuit accusing the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of violating campaign disclosure and lobbying laws. The suit accuses the Southern California tribe of missing deadlines for reporting more than $8 million in political donations over the last five years.
"We are really, really delighted and gratified by the decision," said Karen Getman, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. "It's a very strong affirmation of our ability to enforce the law against tribes to the same extent that we enforce it against any other group. That's key to making our disclosure system work."
The Agua Caliente tribe, which has parlayed profits from two Palm Springs-area casinos into state political power, condemned the ruling as "judicial error." The tribal council said it would consider "a prompt appeal" during a meeting Tuesday.
The central issue addressed by Thursday's ruling is whether California has the authority to force its 109 federally recognized Indian tribes to comply with laws that require timely disclosures of campaign contributions and lobbying expenses.
Agua Caliente leaders had conceded in earlier arguments before the court that the tribe wasn't immune from state political disclosure laws.
The tribe, however, had argued that the federal doctrine of tribal immunity from suit shielded it from legal action by the FPPC, which enforces compliance with California's disclosure laws. It also said the state court lacked jurisdiction over the tribe.
Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster rejected these arguments.
"If large contributors to the electoral and initiative process -- like the tribe -- were not subject to FPPC enforcement actions, the institutions and processes of California's government would be subverted to a significant extent," he reasoned.
McMaster took pains to emphasize that his ruling in no way questioned the doctrine of tribal immunity when applied to tribal self-governance, commercial transactions, economic development and self-sufficiency.
But he ruled tribes were not immune "from suits alleging that they have violated state laws designed to protect the integrity of the state's own political processes, i.e., those laws that specifically regulate the tribes' campaign contributions and legislative lobbying activities."
In a statement, the Agua Caliente tribal council said the ruling "failed to follow clear federal law concerning [tribal] sovereignty."
State officials and public advocacy groups, however, said the ruling was a landmark defense of the integrity of the political process in California.
"Native American tribes have grown to become the state's largest campaign contributors, surpassing the teachers, doctors, trial lawyers, prison guards," said Jim Knox. He is executive director of California Common Cause, a public advocacy group that filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the state's position.
"The danger was the tribes would be able to exert influence that could not be detected by the press or the public," Knox added. Most of the state's tribes comply with disclosure requirements, officials said. But not Agua Caliente, state and advocacy groups contend.
"We can't underestimate the importance of this decision," said Getman. "Agua Caliente, in many ways, is the poster child for why we need disclosure laws."
The tribe has contributed more than $10 million to state candidates and initiative campaigns over the last five years, Knox said.
In addition to donating millions to candidates and ballot initiative campaigns, "they are very active in lobbying the state Legislature," having made contributions to 107 of 120 sitting legislators, Getman said.
Thursday's decision sets an important precedent for future challenges to political disclosure laws, in California and elsewhere, said Knox.
A nearly identical case is scheduled to be heard next week in the same Sacramento court, before a different judge, involving the Santa Rosa Rancheria Indian Community and Palace Indian Gaming Center in Kings County. That tribe also contends that it is not required to comply with state campaign contribution laws.
Getman called on the Agua Caliente leadership to "discuss a settlement" with the state. The tribe could face millions of dollars in fines if it loses the lawsuit.
"When you've got somebody playing at that level and throwing that much money around, they are clearly trying to influence California's elections and the California legislative process," Getman said. "There's nothing wrong with the tribes becoming powerful political players. You just can't do it in secret."