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Judge rejects Pearce’s attempt to join lawsuit against Glendale casino

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PHOENIX – Hours after a group of state lawmakers vowed to join a lawsuit aimed at blocking a tribal casino in the West Valley, a federal judge Thursday rejected one state senator's attempt to do so.

Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, supported by 13 legislators, claimed in his filing that the Interior Department's approval of a plan to convert 54 acres of Tohono O'odham Nation property in Glendale to reservation land undermines the state's – and voters' – authority.

But U.S. District Judge David Campbell ruled Thursday that Pearce "does not speak for the state of Arizona or the Arizona legislature as a whole." He said Pearce could file a friend-of-the-court brief but that the current parties – the city of Glendale and the Gila River Indian Community – have "more than sufficient resources" to pursue the case.

Their lawsuits challenge the federal approval of the Tohono O'odham Nation's request for 54 acres of land to be taken into the reservation system. The tribe plans to build a 600-room resort and a Las Vegas-style casino that it says would create about 3,000 permanent jobs at the site.

Pearce said the plan violates the spirit of Proposition 202, which voters approved in 2002 to turn over casino-gaming rights in the state to Native American tribes. He said voters expected that no new casinos would be built in urban areas within the Valley.

But the Interior Department in July said that the site, despite falling within Glendale's larger geographical boundaries, qualifies as an "unincorporated island," not an urban area. The area is under the jurisdiction of Maricopa County and can therefore be taken into the reservation system, the letter said.

That ruling cleared the way for a Tohono O'odham casino near Northern and 95th avenues in Glendale, a decision that Pearce called "disappointing all the way around."

"The bottom line is, we have an agreement," Pearce said at Thursday morning's news conference, where he was joined by the other lawmakers. "And that compact was very clear that these casinos were not to be built."

Former legislator and current Senate hopeful Scott Bundgaard, a Republican from Surprise, said the Tohono O'odham Nation was part of the Proposition 202 agreement, and "if they're going to go back on that deal, then shame on them."

Bundgaard said the casino would also present a "quality of life issue," as the proposed location is within a mile of a school.

"This isn't something I want to expose young people to," he said.

The plan has Gila River tribal members upset, as the new casino could threaten the Gila casino by replacing it as the closest to Glendale, Peoria and nearby communities. Glendale officials have said they worry that the new casino would drain revenue from existing businesses without contributing to the city's tax base.

The Tohono O'odham Nation acquired the Glendale property under a 1986 federal law meant to compensate them for 10,000 tribal acres turned over for a federal dam project.

Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, criticized what he called the "irresponsible political rhetoric" of the casino's opponents.

"It is unfortunate these individuals are ignoring the opportunity for a community dialogue about how to make this project a success for the West Valley," Norris said in a prepared statement. "Instead, they are doing everything they can to prevent job creation, economic activity and tourism promotion at a time when our state most desperately needs it."

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Maria Polletta/Cronkite News Service

State Sen. Russell Pearce discusses a filing a group of Republican lawmakers entered Thursday supporting Glendale’s efforts to block a tribe’s plan to build a casino in the West Valley.

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