State can go after tribes on campaign finance, court says

The Capitol’s ongoing political opera involving Indian gaming, tribal rights and state power is moving through a new arena: the court system. And the next stop may be the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case focuses on the classic dispute between the state and the tribes: Whose power is supreme? And the impact of the decision could go far beyond the question of political donations in California campaigns.

Just before Christmas, the seven-member California Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that the state’s political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, has the right to sue an Indian tribe in order to force compliance with California’s campaign-finance laws. The 4-to-3 ruling dismissed the arguments of the powerful Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who said that an 88-year-old legal doctrine assured tribal sovereignty and blocked the FPPC from targeting the tribe in court.

But the state High Court, following similar, lower-court rulings, rejected the tribe’s position. The court said that the federal consti tution provides to the states the authority to trump the sovereignty doctrine, and that means that the FPPC has the authority to require the tribes to abide by state-approved campaign-reform laws.

“Allowing tribal members to participate in our state electoral processes while leaving the state powerless to effectively guard against political corruption puts the state in an untenable and indefensible position without recourse,” Justice Ming Chin wrote in the majority opinion. The decision was lauded by anti-gambling groups who said the ruling was overdue and was needed to bring balance to campaign disclosure rules.

In the dissent, Justice Carlos Moreno said that tribal immunity remained intact until, and unless, Congress acted to change it.

At issue is a 2002 lawsuit filed by the FPPC in the Sacramento County Superior Court against the Agua Caliente tribe. The FPPC, which was set up 30 years ago to enforce clean-campaign laws following the Watergate scandals, alleged that the tribe violated California campaign laws by failing to disclose in a timely way some $8 million in political donations. The donations were made in 1998, but were not disclosed until late 2000–a breach of campaign-disclosure law. The state Supreme Court’s decision affirms the rulings of the Sacramento court and the state Court of Appeal.

The Agua Caliente tribe is a major political player in Capitol. By one estimate it has spent some $17 million on its political causes during the past three years, and it is a wealthy gaming tribe with extensive operations.

With the ruling at the state level, the tribe’s next step will be the federal courts, although that possibility has not yet been decided. Tribal advocates believe the state court’s decision does not conform with federal law, which means they could take the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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