A federal appeals court on Monday has taken up an Arizona Indian tribe’s complicated legal fight to build a massive casino and resort near a Glendale neighborhood, on property the tribe owns 160 miles from the headquarters of its sprawling reservation.
The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco gave no hint of how or when it would rule after sharply questioning lawyers on both sides for nearly an hour.
At issue is whether federal law permits the Tohono O’odham Nation to convert property it quietly purchased in 2003 into an Indian reservation, which would strip authority from state and local officials who argue the casino project clashes with zoning and state laws.
A high school is located a few blocks from where the casino is to be erected, which is about a mile from a retail and entertainment district where Phoenix’s professional football and hockey teams play their home games. About 30,000 people live within two miles.
The suburban property is in an unincorporated island of Maricopa County and bordered on three sides by the city of Glendale, which is adjacent to Phoenix.
Local and state officials argue that the proposed 150,000-square-foot casino will require them to beef up fire, police and other civic requirements in an area not equipped to accommodate a Las Vegas-style resort.
The tribe says it bought the property with congressionally allocated money it was given after a federal government dam caused extensive flooding of the original reservation.
The Department of the Interior declared the Glendale property a reservation in 2010.
The tribe had received $30 million to replace nearly 10,000 acres of ancestral reservation land damaged by the dam. The tribe says the 135 acres purchased within the city limits of Glendale in 2003 is part of that replacement program, and the project is located about 60 miles from the damaged land.
Glendale, the state of Arizona and another tribe filed a lawsuit to overturn the Department of the Interior decision. Several other tribes submitted so-called friend-of-the-court briefs opposing the casino. A judge last year sided with the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman.
“This is an acre-for-acre replacement that was an Indian reservation even before Arizona was a state,” Waxman argued to the three-judge panel Monday. He said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar correctly deemed the land a reservation.
Lawyers for Glendale and tribes opposing the project argued that the Tohono O’odham Nation went “reservation shopping” with the government’s money and shouldn’t be allowed to turn just any piece of property it purchases into a reservation and then a sprawling casino the size of the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Arizona Solicitor General Dave Cole said allowing the tribe to build a casino within Glendale but denying city, county and state officials any authority over the project makes the concept of local control “nothing more than an illusion.”
Federal law generally bars gambling on reservations created after 1988, but there are a few exceptions.