Indian tribes have been generally mired in poverty for a very long time, since being herded on reservations in the early days of the coming of the white man, and the Cabazon and Morongo Indians of Southern California had it worse than most.
All they had back in the 1980’s were a few HUD buildings and a few trailers and lived in abject poverty, with even their meager treaties being to a large degree neglected by the State. Around this time, a few Indian tribes across the country were opening up bingo halls, and these tribes decided that they would try to help themselves by opening up their own gambling operations, which included offering bingo and stud poker.
The laws of California do permit card rooms, but only if the house does not take a percentage of the action, and does allow bingo, if the games are small and the proceeds are being donated to charity. In both cases though one must first receive a license from the State to be allowed to operate.
The Indian tribes had no such license, nor was the state prepared to grant one. They just went ahead with the bingo and poker halls anyway, and soon started doing a good business, attracting many people from off the reservation who would visit it to gamble.
This did not sit well with local law enforcement or the state though, and soon the police arrived, and shut down their gambling operations and seized their funds as well. It seems that this experiment ended up as a failure, but these Indians were not prepared to give up quite so easily.
The Landmark Case From A Decade Earlier
The Cabazon Band actually did have a pretty good legal argument against local and state officials having the authority to shut them down like this, and a lot of the basis stems from a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States a decade earlier, in Bryan v. Itasca County.
Russell and Helen Bryan, a Native American couple living on a reservation in northern Minnesota, received a property tax bill from Itasca County. They had never received a property tax bill before and did not have the means to pay it, so they chose to fight it instead.
So they sued the county in the state courts, and lost, and appealed it to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and lost again. However, they were able to have the Supreme Court of the United States hear the case, in 1976, who not only ruled in their favor, they went further and opened the door for Indian gaming by finding that states did not have the legal power to regulate Indians on reservations at all.
This case was an interesting one from a legal perspective because it brought to light the application of a federal law called Public Law 280 which relegated certain rights to states in dealing with Indians on federal reservations, and certain provisions of this were murky and had not been challenged in court, until now that is.
Indian reservations are administered by the federal government, who permit the Indians living on them a certain amount of autonomy, but the state does not have any natural rights to them and the rights they do have are afforded by the federal government.
So there are some instances where the states require the ability to intercede on reservation lands, for instance to enforce criminal law, and since it is the states that make and enforce most of the criminal law, if they could not go on reservations and arrest people, then the law may not be enforceable there, and criminals could commit crimes in the state and then seek refuge on reservations, which was not seen as acceptable.
So Public Law 280, passed in 1953, sought to clarify when states had jurisdiction on Indian lands, and provided the right to do so in criminal matters, but generally did not in regulatory matters. So in other words they really didn’t have the power to regulate the reservations like they did within the state in general.
In this particular case, the Supreme Court found that this law did not permit the county to tax the Indians, nor did they have the right to regulate them at all. So not only did the Bryans win, hereafter if a state sought to regulate Indians on reservations, this set a precedence which courts would now have to follow.
The Cabazon and Moranga Tribes Fight Back
So the case of California v. Cabazon Indians took a different turn, as the Indians took the matter to federal court and this time the Indians won, and this time it was the State that appealed the matter all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the result was the same, the Indians won.
While it was accepted that the State could not regulate the Indians, from the previous precedent, the State argued that this was a criminal matter, and they were enforcing their criminal code and were entitled to do that under Public Law 280.
The Indians argued that this wasn’t a criminal matter at all, but instead a regulatory one, as gambling is permitted in California under certain circumstances, and therefore the act of offering it is a matter of regulation, of receiving a license from the state to be allowed to do so, and the state is not entitled to regulate them in such a fashion.
Like a lot of cases, this one could have really gone either way, and often times the court will lean one way or another and there is often a fair bit of latitude in applying the law more widely or narrowly.
It could have been decided that since the particular gambling that was being offered by the tribes are in fact against the criminal code, the court sought to look at gambling in general as being permitted and use that as a basis for deciding that this was a matter of regulation primarily and therefore the state did not have the legal right to shut down these games.
Often times a state will make gambling illegal generally and then issue licenses and the licenses supersede the law, so the mere fact that the gambling in question was contrary to the criminal code wasn’t enough, and the court did decide the matter correctly in seeing this as primarily a regulatory issue.
This ended up blowing the doors right off the regulation of gambling on Indian reservations, and the federal government moved quickly to pass a new law to impose regulations of their own, and the next year, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed by Congress, which at least set some limits and a framework whereby Indian gaming would be permitted.