November 30th, 2007
A group of California Indians seeking membership in the Table Mountain Rancheria were rejected by a federal appeals court on Thursday.Â Nearly three dozen people sued the tribe in federal court in hopes of getting on the membership roll. The plaintiffs also wanted the Interior Department to force the tribe to take action.
Most membership cases are dismissed by federal courts due to tribal sovereign immunity. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it didn’t even have to address that issue. Instead, the 9th Circuit said the plaintiffs failed to cite a source of law that authorizes the federal court system to hear their membership claims. So the three-judge panel dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The decision means it would probably take an act of Congress to address what has become a hot button issue in California. Upwards of 2,000 California Indians have been kicked off the membership rolls while countless others, like the plaintiffs in the Table Mountain case, have been prevented from seeking membership for various reasons.
A group called the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization, which was created by former members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, is trying to resolve the controversy. AIRRO wants Congress to amend the Indian Civil Rights Act to establish subject matter jurisdiction in federal courts for tribal membership disputes.
In July, the Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party passed a resolution in support of the cause. But the proposal came under heavy attack from other California Indian leaders when the state party met the weekend before Thanksgiving. The resolution “will undermine the rights of tribal governments,” Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians, said an e-mail to Indian Democrats earlier this month.
Despite the highly-charged atmosphere, the 9th Circuit has appeared sympathetic to membership claims. In a 2005 decision involving some of the same plaintiffs in yesterday’s case, the court acknowledged that the tribal membership process can be unfair. But the 9th Circuit has effectively closed off every avenue to pursue tribal membership claims. The court has rejected cases based on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the California Rancheria Act and Public Law 280, which granted civil and criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country to the state.
The Table Mountain Rancheria was terminated by the California Rancheria Act. In a lawsuit during the Reagan administration, the tribe was restored to recognition and the Interior Department oversaw the re-establishment of the tribe’s governing body and its membership roll. The plaintiffs in yesterday’s case tried to reopen the old lawsuit in hopes of adding themselves to the roll. But the 9th Circuit said federal court jurisdiction expired in 1984 under a settlement between the tribe and Interior. The court also said nothing in federal law requires Interior to intervene in membership disputes.
Members of the Table Mountain Rancheria are entitled to a share revenues from the successful Table Mountain Casino in Fresno County. With fewer than 100 on the roll, each person receives an estimated $350,000 a year.