In a crippling blow to Napa County’s efforts to prevent a local Indian tribe from ever building a casino, a federal judge last week removed the county from the tribe’s lawsuit against the U.S. government.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila ruled last Friday that Napa and Sonoma counties didn’t have enough of a significant interest to remain in the lawsuit, and granted a motion from the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley that removed both counties from the suit.

The Wappo tribe sued the government in 2009 seeking restoration of its federal recognition, which it claims was illegally stripped from the tribe in the 1950s. Napa and Sonoma counties joined the lawsuit in 2010, and argued that restoring the tribe’s recognition would pave the way for the tribe to build a casino within either county’s boundaries.

The counties fear that recognition will allow the tribe to petition the government to take land into trust for it, thus exempting that land from local land-use and zoning laws.

After the counties’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit failed last fall, the tribe filed its motion to dismiss the counties in February by arguing that their fears of a casino were too speculative to justify their continued involvement in the case. The case, the tribe has contended in court documents, deals primarily with recognition, not land.

Davila agreed, and wrote in his ruling that “the Counties’ contention that the development of a Las Vegas-style casino would have a significant impact on the land surrounding the development assumes too much about future events not at issue in this case and is flawed in any event.”

Wappo Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon said the ruling clears a major hurdle for the tribe in its pursuit of recognition. The tribe’s next move will be to make a motion for summary judgment, he said. If successful, that would allow Davila to end the case and grant recognition.

“We can move on to summary judgment and get this thing behind us,” Gabaldon said. “We did win, and it was a huge win. We couldn’t be happier with the judge’s ruling.”

Napa County Counsel Mihn Tran said he was disappointed to hear of Davila’s ruling, and added that the Napa County Board of Supervisors will discuss its legal options, including pursuing an appeal of the ruling, during its meeting next Tuesday.

“Certainly this is very important to the county,” Tran said. “We at the present time are analyzing the various options available to us.”

Tran noted that the county has preserved an appeal of Davila’s earlier ruling denying its motion to dismiss the case. He said an appeal could encompass both rulings.

“All those issues would be coming back,” Tran said. “Basically this is the end of the case for us.”

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said the county’s goal has always been to protect Napa from the threat of gaming.

“The tribe specifically asked that the lands taken into trust be deemed ‘restored lands,’ which is the specific land status they need under the federal Indian gaming statute to build and operate a large, Las Vegas-style casino in Napa County,” Dillon said.

“Our significant protectable interests here include our precious agricultural preserve, our concern for the environment, the orderly administration of our comprehensive land use regulations, and the quality of life in Napa County, which we have fought to protect for decades, and we disagree with the judge’s decision.”

“This decision really points out the flaws in the process. The judge is cutting the community out of a process that could have long-term consequences for the sustainability of the Napa Valley as a unique premium wine-growing region, threatening the backbone of our local economy,” Dillon said. “We will continue to assert our rights and advocate for the protection of the Ag Preserve through whatever means are available to us.”

Gabaldon said he expects that the ruling won’t mark the end of the fights between the counties and his tribe, but more likely will shift the battle to a different arena.

Should his tribe pursue a casino if it does receive federal recognition, he expects the counties to push back vehemently.

“In the future, there will be bigger fights,” Gabaldon said of the dispute over land and a casino. “That’s not the fight right now.”

Gabaldon has maintained that his tribe has not made a decision on whether to pursue building a casino if it does have its recognition restored. He has called it an option the tribe can consider, among several other paths to economic development.

Napa County and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, have maintained that only Congress, not the federal courts system, should be able to grant tribes recognition.

“Even with the court’s decision to dismiss our county’s and community’s interests from this case, the fact remains that the correct process for federal recognition of a congressionally derecognized tribe rests with Congress,” Thompson said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Circumventing Congress through the courts is not in the best interest of the American people, and it’s not in the best interests of Napa and Sonoma Counties.”

The Wappo tribe historically had roots in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, and in a small part of Lake County. Around the turn of the 20th century, the sole surviving members of the tribe were relocated to a small portion of land, called a rancheria, in Alexander Valley near Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Tribal members voted in the 1930s to be a federally recognized tribe.

In the 1950s, as part of an effort that spanned California, the federal government sought to disassemble the rancherias, break up the land among individual owners, and strip tribes such as the Wappo of their recognition.

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One of the central thrusts of the Wappo’s case is that a nontribal member, a man named James Adams who was living at the rancheria, was one of two people to vote on removing the tribe’s recognition. The tribe, whose members live in Santa Rosa and the surrounding areas, filed its lawsuit in June 2009 on the grounds that this was illegal, and its recognition should be restored.

In its motion to dismiss the counties, the tribe said the counties had been able to join the lawsuit in 2010 only because the tribe and the federal government had given permission.

The counties argued that they had always had a right to intervene in the lawsuit.

Davila took over the case from his predecessor on the bench, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware, and noted that Ware never reviewed the counties’ standing in the case before he retired.

Thus, in his ruling Friday, Davila analyzed that issue for the first time and concluded that the tribe’s argument prevailed. Davila hinged his ruling on whether the counties had a “protectable interest” in the lawsuit.

The counties’ argument in support of their interest in the case was to cite preservation of their agricultural lands, prevention of environmental detriment and maintenance of regulatory and taxing authority.

However, the tribe’s lawsuit only specifies that it seeks land that’s managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, is within the tribe’s aboriginal footprint, and is available for transfer. If transferred, the tribe sought to have those lands restored and considered “Indian Country” under federal law.

Davila determined that this nullified the county’s interest in the lawsuit.

“There is no direct, immediate or harmful effect on county land by simply placing federal land into trust as the Tribe requests,” Davila wrote. “The harm articulated by the Counties could only result if a casino was actually developed, an issue which is not encompassed by this case.”

Further, Davila wrote that the counties’ continued involvement in the case has caused it undue delay, and disrupted settlement negotiations between the tribe and the federal government.

“These negotiations turned to litigation with the addition of the Counties, such that the Counties — as peripheral players to this lawsuit — have now become its driving force,” Davila wrote.

“They shouldn’t have been in it in the first place,” Gabaldon said of the counties. “It’s a big victory for the tribe. I really feel like it always has been a government-to-government issue. My immediate reaction is, ‘Yahoo, we won.’ It’s really tough to kick someone out of a case.”

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