A federal judge on Thursday slapped down efforts by state lawmakers to keep the Tohono O'odham Nation from expanding its reservation -- and setting up a casino -- on the edge of Glendale.
Judge David Campbell said the Legislature acted illegally earlier this year in approving a bill to allow Glendale to annex the 135 acres of land the tribe owns without its consent. The ruling, unless overturned, clears a major hurdle for the Tohono who are hoping to build a $550 million casino, hotel and shopping center on land near the University of Phoenix football stadium.
Campbell said he is "sympathetic'' to the desire of state officials to control annexation and to avoid having the federal government controlling land nearly surrounded by other communities, "particularly when the acquisition may allow gambling in a community that strongly opposes it.''
But he said allowing the state to undermine reservation status for the land in this way undermines a 1986 federal law allowing the tribe to acquire it in the first place. And Campbell said in cases of these kinds of conflicts, federal law rules.
Thursday's decision is a setback for foes of the planned casino. That includes Gov. Jan Brewer, a Glendale resident, who signed the legislation that was specifically designed to thwart the plan.
The ruling does not end all of the legal maneuvering. There also are separate lawsuits filed by Glendale, the state and the Gila River Indian Community, all challenging the authority of the U.S. Department of Interior to give the land reservation status. That is a legal precursor to allowing tribal gaming.
But the rulings so far have favored the Tohono.
The battle traces its roots to the 1960 construction of the Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River, near what had been the San Lucy District of the Tohono Reservation. A series of floods from the dam made the nearly 10,000 acres economically unusable.
Congress responded in 1986 by giving the tribe $30 million and permitting it to buying land in Pima, Pinal or Maricopa counties as a replacement, with the option of having it become part of the reservation. But the law said that land could not be within the corporate limits of any city.
In 2003, the Tohono, using a corporate name, bought the parcel near Glendale. Its true ownership did not become known, though, until 2009 when the tribe asked the Department of Interior to take the property "into trust,'' meaning it would become part of the reservation, a necessary step toward the casino.
Earlier this year, in a bid to thwart that, lawmakers voted to let Glendale annex the land. Campbell said they can't do that.
He said the 1986 law spells out that once the tribe asked for reservation status, the federal government was obligated to approve. And Campbell said that request came in 2009.
The bill allowing annexation, the judge said, did not come until two years later. He said allowing the state law to preclude reservation status for the land the tribe bought would be undermining the clear intent of Congress in approving the 1986 law.
Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, sponsor of the legislation, lashed out at the court for overturning the will of the state's elected officials.
"It seems to me like the only real power in the country is through the courts,'' he said. "It doesn't seem to make any difference what legislators do.''
Weiers said, though, the fight to keep a casino from the site will continue.
In a prepared statement, Tohono Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the latest decision should serve as a notice that the casino is coming and the foes should stop fighting it.
``Further litigation by Glendale and others serves only to waste limited taxpayer dollars,'' he said. Norris said community leaders should negotiate with the tribe ``to resolve our differences and work together to the benefit of our communities.''