United States District Court, District of Columbia
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING THE UNITED STATES’ CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Barbara Jacobs Rothstein U.S. District Court Judge.
At the center of this dispute is a proposed gaming operation on the Buena Vista Rancheria of the Me-Wuk Tribe located in Amador County, California. In 2000, pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”), 25 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2721, the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior (the “Secretary”), approved a gaming compact between the Me-Wuk Tribe and the State of California. The gaming compact was later amended in 2004 to provide for an expanded gaming operation. Although it had not challenged the 2000 gaming compact, Plaintiff, Amador County, challenges the Secretary’s approval of the amended compact, claiming that the Buena Vista Rancheria does not qualify as “Indian land”-a requirement under the IGRA.
Currently before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. The Secretary argues that her approval of the amended gaming compact must be upheld because it is in accordance with the IGRA. First, the Secretary contends that Amador County is barred from contesting the Rancheria’s reservation status under the IGRA because the County stipulated to the Rancheria’s status as such in a settlement judgment in an earlier lawsuit between the County and the Me-Wuk Tribe. Second, the Secretary argues that even if this Court were to determine that the stipulated judgment does not have preclusive effect in this lawsuit, her approval of the amended compact still must be upheld because Congress granted her the authority to determine what lands qualify as reservations for purposes of the IGRA.
Amador County, on the other hand, requests that this Court declare that the Buena Vista Rancheria is not Indian land under the IGRA and set aside the Secretary’s approval of the amended compact. The County contends that it did not, and indeed could not, stipulate to the Rancheria’s reservation status. It further argues that even if it did stipulate to the Rancheria’s reservation status, the stipulation does not have preclusive effect on the present litigation. Lastly, the County argues the term “reservation” as it is used in the IGRA is narrowly defined and the Buena Vista Rancheria does not fit within that narrow definition.
Having reviewed the parties’ submissions, the record of the case, and the relevant legal authority, the Court concludes that: (1) Amador County stipulated that it would treat the Buena Vista Rancheria as a reservation; (2) Amador County is barred from arguing in this litigation that the Rancheria is not a reservation; and, alternatively, (3) the Secretary is authorized to declare that the Rancheria is a reservation for purposes of the IGRA. Therefore, the Court will DENY Amador County’s motion for summary judgment and GRANT the Secretary’s cross-motion. The reasoning for the Court’s decision is set forth below.
This case is another small chapter in the continuing protean history of the relationship between Native American entities and the federal, state, and county governments with which they interact. In 1927 the United States purchased 67.5 acres of land in Amador County and held it in trust for the Me-Wuk Tribe. Amador Cnty, Cal. v. Salazar, 640 F.3d 373, 375 (D.C. Cir. 2011). This land is commonly referred to as the Buena Vista Rancheria. However, in 1958, in keeping with the “then-popular policy of assimilating Native Americans into American society, Congress enacted the California Rancheria Act, which authorized the Secretary to terminate the federal trust relationship with several California tribes, including the Me-Wuk Tribe, and to transfer tribal lands from federal trust ownership to individual fee ownership.” Id. (citing Act of Aug. 18, 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-671, 72 Stat. 619). Pursuant to the Act, the Secretary transferred title to the Buena Vista Rancheria to two Me-Wuk Tribe members. Id. In doing so, the Secretary “stripped the [Rancheria] of its reservation status.” Id. at 383.
Twenty years later, members of the Me-Wuk Tribe joined members of sixteen other California rancherias and filed a class action lawsuit against the United States and several California counties to undo the effect of the California Rancheria Act. See Hardwick v. United States, No. C-79-1710 (N.D.Ca. 1979). The tribes sought equitable relief requiring the Secretary to: (1) “unterminate” each of the seventeen rancherias and (2) restore plaintiffs’ “rights, privileges and immunities” as Native Americans under the United States Constitution. Id., Second Amended Complaint at 26-27. The Hardwick lawsuit ended in a settlement between the tribes and the federal government and, subsequently, in a series of separate stipulated judgments between the individual tribes and the counties in which the tribes’ rancherias are located. Amador Cnty, 640 F.3d at 376.
In the first settlement-the August 2, 1983 settlement between the tribes and the federal government-the federal government agreed to: (1) restore Indian status to the Hardwick plaintiffs and confirm that these individuals and/or communities are entitled to the benefits and services provided by the federal government, (2) confirm that the distribution plans for the seventeen rancherias had “no further force and effect” and would not be further implemented, and (3) accept the assets of the seventeen rancherias if any of the plaintiffs elected “to restore such interest to trust status” with the United States. Dkt. No. 76, Ex. 4 at ¶¶ 3-10.
In the sequent stipulated judgment-the May 14, 1987 settlement between the Me-Wuk Tribe and Amador County-the parties agreed that: (1) the Buena Vista Rancheria had not been “lawfully terminated under the California Rancheria Act, ” (2) the original boundaries of the Rancheria would be restored, it would be considered “Indian Country, ” and treated “as any other federally recognized Indian Reservation, ” (3) “all of the laws” that pertain to federally recognized Indians and/or Indian tribes would also apply to the Rancheria, and (4) if any Indian owned Rancheria land was returned to trust status with the United States by the end of 1988, the County would refund previously paid property taxes and refrain from assessing further taxes (so long as proper exemption forms were filed each tax year). Hardwick v. United States, No. C-79- 1710, Dkt. No. 214 at ¶¶ 2, C-E, G.
Thereafter, the Me-Wuk Tribe began planning a gaming operation on the Buena Vista Rancheria. Amador Cnty., 640 F.3d at 376. In 1999, the Tribe completed its initial round of negotiations with the State of California and, in 2000, the Secretary approved the resulting gaming compact pursuant to the IGRA. Id. at 377. Amador County did not object to the 2000 gaming compact. In 2004, the Tribe began a second round of negotiations with the State of California, which resulted in an amended compact that provided for the construction of a casino. Id. When the Tribe submitted the amended compact for approval to the Secretary, the Secretary took “no-action, ” which, as provided in the IGRA, meant that the amended compact was deemed approved after forty-five days. Id. The Secretary published a notice of approval in the Federal Register on December 20, 2004. 69 Fed. Reg. 76, 004.
Amador County filed the instant lawsuit in 2005. The matter was originally assigned to the Honorable Richard W. Roberts. The Secretary moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Amador County had failed to state a claim for relief because the Secretary’s “no-action” decision is not reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”). Judge Roberts accepted the Secretary’s argument and dismissed the lawsuit. Amador County appealed and the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Secretary’s “no-action” approval of the gaming compact is reviewable under the APA. Id. at 383.
Having determined that the Secretary’s “no-action” approval is reviewable, the D.C. Circuit turned to the merits of the case. First, the Circuit Court observed that the “sole question at issue” in this case is whether the Buena Vista Rancheria qualifies as “Indian land” for purpose of the IGRA. Id. “[I]f it does, ” the Circuit Court noted, the parties agree that “the Secretary had authority to approve the compact.” Id. at 383. The Circuit Court further observed that the parties agree that, under the facts of this case, the Buena Vista Rancheria “can qualify as ‘Indian land’ only if it is an ‘Indian Reservation.’” Id. Finally, the Court stated, whether the Buena Vista Rancheria is a reservation “turns, and ...