State officials fight for trial in casino case

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- A ruling that allows the Tohono O'odham Nation to build a sprawling, Las Vegas-style casino in suburban Phoenix is improper because it is based on an objective interpretation of Arizona's gambling compact, state officials said in a court filing submitted Wednesday.

Instead, the court should base its decision on what both sides agreed the contract meant before it was approved by voters in 2002, plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue. They include the state, the Gila River Indian Community and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. They insist the Tohono were aware that the contract indirectly banned new casinos, but kept silent about their plans to build a new casino until after the measure cleared the ballot.

What's more, the state argues that former Gov. Jan Hull's understanding of the contract should be the law of the land because she signed the compact into law when she had the authority to negotiate gambling contracts.

"It is undisputed that Governor Hull understood that the Compact would permit no additional casinos in Phoenix," the state wrote in its filing.

The Tohono tribe countered that the contract-interpretation claim has been resolved and that the court should move on. They argue there is nothing ambiguous about state gambling laws, which do not ban new casinos.

"The negotiators for both sides spent more than two years in intensive negotiations crafting the precise language that was ultimately included in the Compact," the Tohono's legal team wrote in its court filing Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell said in his recent ruling that the Tohono O'odham Nation's development is legal because the state's gambling compact did not contain language prohibiting new casino construction. Opponents insist the casino ban was implicit and part of the reason why voters approved the compact.

At the time of his ruling, Campbell called for further evidence on the intent of the voter-approved compact by late Wednesday. Both sides met the deadline.

The state wants the court to deny the Tohono O'odham Nation's motion for summary judgment and bring the case to trial. The casino opponents also submitted court filings last week that said the court overlooked important evidence when ruling that the Tohono O'odham Nation's construction plan doesn't violate state gambling laws.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2011 to stop the casino, saying it violates zoning and state laws and would disrupt residential neighborhoods near downtown Phoenix.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that a key legal issue remains unresolved regarding whether the tribe was rightfully awarded reservation status for its planned casino site. The site on unincorporated land is surrounded by the city of Glendale.

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 random parcels of property into a reservation.

The tribe already operates three casinos in southern Arizona.