Limits to Sovereignty? Courts Tackle a Tough Issue

May 17, 2003
Editorial By Sacramento Bee

Few Californians are aware of it, but 107 sovereign nations exist within the borders of the state. These nations are federally recognized Indian tribes, which under treaty and law are entitled to run their own governments on their own land, free of interference from state and local authorities.

When the tribes scratched out meager livings on barren and remote reservations, their unique sovereign status held no significance for most Californians. Indian gambling has changed all that.

It has made some tribes rich. And it has made them powerful.

Armed with billions of dollars in gambling profits, gambling tribes have begun to exercise their sovereign rights in ways that have impacts, both big and small, on local and state government, on non-Indians who live adjacent to Indian land, and on every man, woman and child in California.

“Nations Within,” a series of special reports by the The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, illustrates some of those impacts:

* Invoking their sovereign status, a wealthy gambling tribe in San Diego County has refused to allow a county hydrologist on its land to determine if groundwater used to irrigate the tribe’s new golf course caused the water wells of its non-Indian neighbors to dry up.

* Again, invoking sovereign status two other tribes have challenged the right of the Fair Political Practices Commission to force them to disclose millions of dollars of political campaign contributions. Tribes are among the biggest campaign contributors in the state. If they are exempt, the state’s political reform act is, for all practical purposes, dead.

* When a Southern California tribe seized a concrete manufacturer’s bulldozer, loaders, water truck and earth mover in a business dispute, the manufacturer sued. Citing the tribe’s sovereign immunity, an appeals court concluded that state courts had no jurisdiction in the dispute. Similarly, the courts have repeatedly barred employees of tribal casinos from suing tribes for wrongful termination, discrimination or other job related violations, also on the grounds of sovereign immunity.

In short, local governments and the state of California and its courts have no authority over sovereign tribes. As the law now stands, anyone hurt or cheated or wrongfully fired on Indian lands or damaged by actions on those lands, cannot rely on the legal protections that apply everywhere else in the state.

That may change. As gambling tribes expand their commercial empires, disputes with their non-Indian neighbors and local and state authorities have increased and attempts to limit the tribes’ sovereignty have escalated. Two lawsuits filed by the FPPC against tribes that refuse to report campaign contributions are winding through California courts. Another lawsuit, involving an Inyo County tribe that sued local authorities for breaking into a tribal casino to retrieve employment records wanted in a welfare fraud investigation, has been argued before the US Supreme Court. The ruling in that case could have profound impacts on the future relations of local governments to tribes and the balance of power between them.

Ultimately, if the courts don’t or can’t limit the scope of tribal sovereignty to protect the legitimate rights of innocent citizens or states and local governments harmed by tribal activities, Congress must.