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Rohnert Park casino opponents see new hope in Supreme Court decision


Foes of the casino proposed on Rohnert Park’s northwest boundary have been energized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that creates new legal avenues for them to attempt to derail the project.

Looking southwest, the proposed Rohnert Park casino site is marked by the plowed field at top with Home Depot to the right in this 2005 photo.

The decision in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak affirmed a Michigan man’s right to sue the federal government over its decision to take land into trust for a tribe that planned a casino there.

The Monday ruling also changed from 30 days to 6 years the length of time available to people to sue the government about such decisions. The Secretary of the Interior took the Graton Rancheria property into trust in 2010.

“That’s a huge, huge victory as far as we’re concerned,” said Mike Healy, a Petaluma Councilman who has authored several lawsuits challenging the casino project for the Stop the Casino 101 group.

A similar Stop the Casino 101 lawsuit was dismissed in 2010 by a court that ruled it premature.

The group in May sued the state over the agreement it signed with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria allowing the project to go forward. It contends that because the Graton Rancheria casino site was not historically sovereign Indian territory, the state still controls it, making the planned Las Vegas-style casino illegal.

Another lawsuit now is planned against the federal government, Healy said.

“It will be soon,” he said.

The lawsuit against the state is pending, but Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum denied Stop the Casino 101’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent work on the project from starting.

Experts in Indian law agree that the Supreme Court decision gives opponents additional options as they continue years of legal attempts to stop the casino from rising on 254 acres just south of Home Depot.

“This opens a door that was not previously open to sue the Department of Interior, to claim that accepting of the land into trust was arbitrary or capricious and an abuse of discretion,” said Tony Cohen, a Santa Rosa attorney.

However, Cohen and other Indian and gambling law attorneys say there are significant differences between the Michigan tribe’s circumstances and the Graton Rancheria’s situation.

The most important, they said, is that the Michigan case alleges that the Secretary of the Interior broke the law and exceeded his authority when he took the land into trust in 2005.

In the case of the Graton Rancheria, the tribe was restored by an act of Congress, after which, on Congress’s order, the Secretary of the Interior took land into trust for it.

“Here, it’s Congress that specifically said that you must take land into trust,” Cohen said. “In this particular case, that claim (in Michigan) is completely irrelevant.”

Others note that the court decision did not assess the arguments David Patchak advanced in his 2008 lawsuit. Patchak sued the government saying it wrongly took land into trust for what is known as the Gun Lake Tribe because the tribe was not recognized when a 1934 law governing trust issues was passed.

The tribe in 2011 opened a casino financed and managed by Station Casinos, the Las Vegas-based backer of the Graton Rancheria project.

A lower court rejected Patchak’s lawsuit, a decision then reversed on appeal. The Supreme Court upheld the latter ruling.

“The Patchak decision did not reach the merits of the claim; it was a procedural question,” said George Forman, whose San Rafael firm focuses on American Indian law.

Still, the opening lays the groundwork for precisely what Stop the Casino 101 has not yet had: a hearing on the strength of their arguments, which some other experts have said are both novel and well-constructed.

“What we’ll be left with is dealing with the substantive arguments that we’ve been wanting to present in court now for several years now,” said Healy.

Station Casino’s representatives said they do not expect the ruling to alter the progress of the 3,000-slot casino project in Rohnert Park, which broke ground on Monday and is projected for completion late next year.

“We are disappointed,” said Scott Nielson, the company’s executive vice president and chief development officer. “We don’t believe, however, that the Patchak case will have any negative impact on the Graton Rancheria project.”

One factor, said Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier, a partner at Snell & Wilmer Indian and Gaming Law Practice in Phoenix, is that it will probably be “several years” until the merits of the Patchak case are decided. By then, the Graton casino will likely be open and a court would be unlikely to act against it.

“From an equities standpoint, it will make it more difficult to try and shut down the casino,” she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)

3 Responses to “Rohnert Park casino opponents see new hope in Supreme Court decision”

  1. Jean Anderson says:

    Despite some of the looney posts about this subject, building a casino in RP is simply a horrible idea for so many reasons. Therefore, it’s not surprising that some local politicians support it, as anyone can see they support all kinds of stupid projects that always seem to “stick it” to taxpayers while providing minimal benefits.

    If the Graton tribe wants to win supporters while also benefiting itself and the entire county at the same time, it should finance re-surfacing of all the roads that are falling apart in exchange for 1-cent of the gasoline tax. That way, everyone wins and traffic would improve, not be further jammed up by some truly stupid casino.

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  2. Jimbo96 says:

    And the only reason Congress did this was because of the $’s funneled into their families and campaign coffers by some of the “boys” from Vegas who are the financial backers. I do believe that at some point a high politicians son was paid almost half a million dollars for legal work trying to locate the casino near Sears Point, but that may have been a different tribe, but the source of the money was all the same…follow the money, who is financially backing this, why? Because they see a chance to get richer running a casino within an hour of SF.
    This has never been about Native Americans…it’s always been about money, and lots of it has been spent so far, and they will spend millions more if they have to…

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  3. Marilyn Blair says:

    What is missing from the photo you show of the proposed casino site? The NEIGHBORHOOD that starts right where the photo ends on the right. Those hay fields separate rural properties from the urban area. They are in unincorporated Sonoma County, which means they pay all the same taxes, but don’t get to vote on issues that impact them. No one is talking about the impact this casino will have on these residents who; rely on well and septic; want to raise their livestock, vegetables, FFA and 4-H children in a healthy environment. The fact that it is KNOWN that the casino’s well will dry wells around, property value is lost, homeowners are stuck with a casino in their yards. Don’t you think they deserve to be in the photo?

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