By Ellen Garrison
The Wilton Rancheria tribe planning to build a casino on the southern edge of Elk Grove cleared a major legal hurdle Wednesday.
A federal judge dismissed a challenge by casino opponents, including gambling watchdog Stand Up for California, to a federal decision that placed 35.9 acres into a trust for the tribe. That came in January 2017 during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.
Judge Trevor N. McFadden ruled that a federal law regarding agency vacancies gave Larry Roberts, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the authority to issue the decision.
"This case involves a uniquely Washingtonian question: when can a federal employee act in the place of an absent agency or unit head?" McFadden wrote. "This issue becomes acute during presidential transitions, when thousands of senior political appointees exit the government, often leaving their positions vacant for months or even years."
The tribe celebrated the decision.
"We are grateful to the United States government for defending and upholding their federal trust responsibility to our tribe and for protecting our inherent right to have tribal trust lands, not only for now, but for generations to come," Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond "Chuckie" Hitchcock said in the statement.
Stand Up for California Director Cheryl Schmit called the tribe's celebration premature, saying plaintiffs will refile their complaint this month alleging violations of other federal laws, including the Indian Reorganization Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
"There are a multitude of federal laws that apply to one project," she said. "There's some really serious issues yet."
The casino is planned for part of the site of an outlet mall along Highway 99. It's expected to cost the tribe and their partner, Boyd Gaming, $400 million to build a casino, hotel and convention center on the property. Elk Grove residents and card room interests have mounted a series of challenges to the project, which has steadily proceeded through the regulatory process.
A separate lawsuit alleged that Elk Grove officials had illegally colluded with tribal leaders to push the casino approval through. The plaintiffs in that case filed a request for dismissal in December, according to Sacramento Superior Court records.