PHOENIX - A federal appeals court says a key legal issue remains unresolved regarding whether a southern Arizona tribe was rightfully awarded reservation status for its planned casino site in the Phoenix area.
The U.S. Interior Department must consider anew whether a federal law on land acquisitions by the Tohono O'odham Nation prohibits adding its planned casino site to the tribe's reservation because the site is surrounded by the city of Glendale, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel said in a 2-1 ruling Monday.
"We are very pleased that the 9th Circuit has knocked down more of the opposition's spurious arguments," Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said in a statement. "The Nation is currently reviewing the court's request for additional information and we look forward to this matter being expeditiously resolved" by the Interior Department.
The ruling on a lawsuit filed by Glendale, the state and a second tribe replaces a September decision by the same court regarding the legality of the federal government's decision to grant reservation status to the 54-acre site for the planned Tohono O'odham casino resort.
The property is an unincorporated island bordered on three sides by Glendale, and at issue is how to interpret part of a federal law on land acquisitions by the tribe. Under the provision, land that is "within the corporate limits of any city or town" can't be added to the tribe's reservation.
Agreeing with a position taken by the tribe and the Interior Department, the appeals court previously rejected the casino opponents' arguments that the property is ineligible for reservation status because it is not part of Glendale.
However, the new ruling Monday said there is indeed "ambiguity" on the corporate limits provision of the law and that the Interior Department was mistaken to conclude that the provision's meaning was clear.
"Who knew that that such a straightforward sounding phrase, `within the corporate limits,' would generate such competing views," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the new ruling.
In a related but separate proceeding, a federal judge recently ruled that the state's voter-approved 2002 law on tribal casinos does not prohibit the Tohono O'odham project.
In that case, the plaintiffs sued in 2011 to stop the casino, saying it violates zoning and state laws and would disrupt residential neighborhoods near downtown Phoenix.
The judge in that case is still considering what was understood at the time about the 2002 law's meaning.
The Tohono O'odham Nation unveiled its plans for the massive resort and casino in 2009. The tribe previously purchased the site after receiving a $30 million federal settlement to replace nearly 10,000 acres of ancestral reservation land damaged by a dam.
The federal government declared the land a reservation in 2010 despite opposition from state and local officials who argued tribes shouldn't be allowed to turn any piece of property into a reservation.
The tribe already operates three casinos in southern Arizona.