PHOENIX - A federal judge on Thursday tossed out challenges to the decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to let the Tohono O'odham Nation make land the tribe owns at the edge of Glendale part of the reservation.
In a 24-page ruling, Judge David Campbell rejected every argument presented by foes of the tribe's planned casino, resort and shopping plaza that the federal agency acted improperly in granting reservation status to the land the tribe bought in 2003.
But it remains unclear whether the defeat for attorneys for the state, the city of Glendale and the Gila River Indian Community, if not overturned, allows the tribe to begin construction of the casino.
Attorneys for the tribe argued in court that reservation status allows it to proceed with its plans for a casino without getting approval under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr., in a prepared statement, said other "regulatory approvals" are needed.
One hurdle is that the state filed a separate lawsuit last month saying a 2002 Arizona law giving tribes the exclusive right to operate casino gaming and a contract signed between the tribe in the state precludes the plan.
Separately, the Legislature approved a measure earlier this year giving Glendale permission to annex the land without tribal permission. That creates a different issue, as the 1986 federal law allowing the tribe to buy land specifically makes any land within a city off-limits to reservation status - a status that is legally necessary for the tribe to operate a casino.
Attorneys for the O'odham already anticipated that: They filed suit last month to void the state law.
The 1986 law gave the tribe money to compensate for the loss of nearly 10,000 acres in its San Lucy District near Gila Bend flooded because of a federal dam project. The law also permitted the tribe to buy replacement property in Pima, Maricopa or Gila counties and make it part of the reservation.
The tribe bought about 135 acres near Glendale in 2003, but under the name of a corporation. In 2009, when the true ownership was disclosed, the tribe announced its casino plans and asked the Department of the Interior to add the property to the reservation.
When Interior gave the go-ahead last year, separate lawsuits were filed by Glendale and the Gila River Indian Community, which has the closest casinos to the area. The state joined the challenge.
Campbell said their objections have no legal basis.
The most complex issue is whether granting reservation status provides an automatic approval for tribal gaming. Challengers said that runs afoul of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which imposes other conditions that must be met before a tribal casino can be operated.
Campbell said the 1986 law requires the Interior Department to grant reservation status once certain conditions are met. He said that agency was powerless to consider gaming considerations.
But he did not address whether any of this affects the gaming agreements between the tribe and the state under the 2002 Arizona law, agreements that state officials argue preclude gaming on the site.
Challengers also argued that the property, an unincorporated island surrounded entirely by Glendale, is "within" the city's corporate limits, making it ineligible for reservation status.
The judge also made short work of arguments that the 1986 federal law and the Interior Department decision infringe on Arizona's sovereign rights to control land within its own borders.