Ten months after a federal judge took under submission a lawsuit involving a local Indian tribe’s pursuit of federal recognition, Napa County officials continue to await his ruling.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila held a hearing last July to listen to arguments on the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, which seeks to have its federal recognition restored — a move local officials fear would be a precursor to the tribe pursuing building a casino in Napa County.

Davila’s ruling has yet to be filed, but that’s not surprising, said Napa County Counsel Minh Tran. Federal judges have no deadlines to rule on cases, and Tran said the county has spoken to people involved in a federal case in New York involving similar tribal issues where the judge took 2½ years to issue a ruling.

“That is not unusual for federal court judges to take cases under submission for this long,” Tran said. “They don’t have any deadline.”

Napa and Sonoma counties are no longer part of the lawsuit because Davila removed them in the fall of 2012, and their appeal of his ruling was denied. The only recent paperwork filed in federal court involving the Wappo’s case relates to routine noticing of the appellate court’s ruling, which was recorded last September.

The Santa Rosa-based tribe has always denied that its motivation in seeking federal recognition was solely to build a casino. The tribe says its desire is to right a historical wrong the federal government did to tribal members in the late 1950s, when it stripped them of their federal recognition — the tribe contends illegally — and to provide economic development opportunity to its members.

The tribe has called building a casino an option it could consider if it receives federal recognition, although it would face stiff opposition locally if it tried to build one in Napa County. The tribe has aboriginal claims to land in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, according to federal court records.

Federal recognition would mean the tribe is considered a sovereign nation, and thus allowed to exempt land it takes into trust from local land-use and zoning laws.

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Wappo Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon hung up on a reporter last week when asked to comment on the delay in Davila’s ruling.

The Wappo sued in federal court in 2009 after years of efforts to restore their federal recognition in Congress and through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs failed. Napa and Sonoma counties were allowed into the suit in 2010 and attempted to have it dismissed, although their motion was rejected.

The case culminated in a hearing before Davila July 25 in U.S. District Court in San Jose, with more than an hour of back-and-forth between attorneys for the tribe and the U.S. government, exchanging arguments and answering questions from Davila.

The federal government contends that it followed the letter of a Congressional act permitting the dissolution of Indian tribes in California in exchange for divvying up land among stakeholders. It also argued that the tribe waited too long to sue, and that the federal statute of limitations — typically six years — should apply in the Wappo’s case.


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