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Updated May 23, 2013 - 11:14 am

State officials fight for trial in casino case

PHOENIX — A ruling that allows the Tohono O’odham Nation to build a
sprawling, Las Vegas-style casino in suburban Phoenix is improper because it is
based on an objective interpretation of Arizona’s gambling compact, state
officials said in a court filing submitted Wednesday.

Instead, the court should base its decision on what both sides agreed the
contract meant before it was approved by voters in 2002, plaintiffs in the
lawsuit argue. They include the state, the Gila River Indian Community and the
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. They insist the Tohono were aware
that the contract indirectly banned new casinos, but kept silent about their
plans to build a new casino until after the measure cleared the ballot.

What’s more, the state argues that former Gov. Jan Hull’s understanding of the
contract should be the law of the land because she signed the compact into law
when she had the authority to negotiate gambling contracts.

“It is undisputed that Governor Hull understood that the Compact would permit
no additional casinos in Phoenix,” the state wrote in its filing.

The Tohono tribe countered that the contract-interpretation claim has been
resolved and that the court should move on. They argue there is nothing
ambiguous about state gambling laws, which do not ban new casinos.

“The negotiators for both sides spent more than two years in intensive
negotiations crafting the precise language that was ultimately included in the
Compact,” the Tohono’s legal team wrote in its court filing Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell said in his recent ruling that the
Tohono O’odham Nation’s development is legal because the state’s gambling
compact did not contain language prohibiting new casino construction. Opponents
insist the casino ban was implicit and part of the reason why voters approved
the compact.

At the time of his ruling, Campbell called for further evidence on the intent
of the voter-approved compact by late Wednesday. Both sides met the deadline.

The state wants the court to deny the Tohono O’odham Nation’s motion for
summary judgment and bring the case to trial. The casino opponents also
submitted court filings last week that said the court overlooked important
evidence when ruling that the Tohono O’odham Nation’s construction plan doesn’t
violate state gambling laws.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2011 to stop the casino, saying it violates
zoning and state laws and would disrupt residential neighborhoods near downtown
Phoenix.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that a key legal issue remains
unresolved regarding whether the tribe was rightfully awarded reservation status
for its planned casino site. The site on unincorporated land is surrounded by
the city of Glendale.

The Tohono O’odham Nation unveiled its plans for the massive resort and casino
in 2009. The tribe previously purchased the site after receiving a $30 million
federal settlement to replace nearly 10,000 acres of ancestral reservation land
damaged by a dam.

The federal government declared the land a reservation in 2010 despite
opposition from state and local officials who argued tribes shouldn’t be allowed
to turn random parcels of property into a reservation.

The tribe already operates three casinos in southern Arizona.

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