From competing tribes to the state legislature and even the US House and Senate, the Tohono O’odham Nation has faced strong headwinds in trying to get a casino opened on the edge of the Phoenix, Arizona suburb or Glendale. On Friday the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state legislators acted illegally when they voted to allow Glendale to forcibly annex tribal land without their permission in 2011. The tribe had purchased the land eight years earlier.
The appeals court’s ruling now enables the tribe to ask for more land it owns in the Glendale area to be taken into federal trust as reservation land.
U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell had already ruled in favor of the tribe and the state had appealed the decision. The three judge panel (whose decision could be overturned by an “en banc” panel of all qualified judges in the circuit) all agreed that Congress intended for the Tohono O’odham Nation to be able to create new reservation property for the economic benefit of its members.
A federal dam project flooded the tribe’s reservation land near Gila Bend and in 1986 Congress passed a law giving the tribe $30 million in reparations in order to buy up to 10,000 acres of replacement land in three counties, as long as that land was not within any city limits. In 2003 the tribe bought the land outside of Glendale and in 2009 revealed they planned to build a casino there. The appeals court ruled that the law allowing Glendale to annex the land was flawed as it contained a special carve-out usurping a stipulation that at least half of landowners in an annex action have to agree to the taking.
Writing for the panel, Judge Milan Smith Jr. stated in part that, “The act recognized that ‘the lack of an appropriate land base severely retards the economic self-sufficiency of the O’odham people … contributes to their high unemployment and acute health problems, and results in chronic high costs for federal services and transfer payments,’ ” quoting directly from the 1986 law. He also noted that the flawed state law came after the Secretary of the Interior determined the land was appropriate for inclusion in the tribe’s reservation.
“The effect of the state law is to thwart the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of the act,” Smith wrote. If allowed to stand, the Arizona law would have, in effect, given the city of Glendale veto power over the US Congress according the judge.
Friday’s ruling was one in a number of hurdles the tribe has faced and will still need to overcome to open Desert Diamond West Valley Casino next month as planned. Other legal disputes with the state are in play in federal court which will determine whether the tribe may offer a full casino, or only Class II “bingo-slots”. Members of the US House and Senate have separate bills designed to stop the tribe from offering any sort of gaming there until at least 2027.