Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 22, 2006


Page 1


S.C.: Tribe Not Immune From Suit Over Campaign Contributions


By TINA BAY, Staff Writer


A federally recognized Native American tribe is not immune from suit by the California’s Fair Political Practices Commission for allegedly violating campaign contribution reporting requirements, the state Supreme Court held yesterday.

In a 4-3 decision, the justices affirmed a 2004 ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal allowing the FPPC to sue the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians over its alleged failure to comply with provisions of the Political Reform Act. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Ming W. Chin said:

“Tribal members, as citizens of the United States, are allowed to participate in state elections. Allowing the Tribe immunity from suit in this context would allow tribal members to participate in elections and make campaign contributions (using the tribal organization) unfettered by regulations designed to ensure the system’s integrity. Allowing tribal members to participate in our state electoral process while leaving the state powerless to effectively guard against political corruption puts the state in an untenable and indefensible position without recourse.”

After being sued in Sacramento Superior Court by the FPPC in 2002, the tribe had moved to quash service of summons for lack of persona jurisdiction, arguing its status as a federally-recognized Indian tribe entitled it to sovereign immunity. 

Alleged Reporting Violations

FPPC’s complaint claimed the tribe made political campaign contributions of more than $7.5 million in 1998, $175,250 in the first half of 2001, and $426,000 in the first half of 2002, but failed to disclose lobbying interests and late contributions.  Among the allegedly unreported contributions was a March 2002 donation to a committee supporting failed Proposition 51—which, had it passed, would have authorized funding for several projects including a passenger rail line from Los Angeles to Palm Springs where the tribe operates a casino.

The complaint sought both an injunction ordering the tribe to file the required disclosure statements and as monetary penalties.

Denying the tribe’s motion to quash, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster ruled that the tribe’s sovereign immunity claim was outweighed by the state’s rights under the U.S. Constitution to preserve a republican form of government and regulate its electoral and legislative processes.  Therefore, he held, the FPPC had enforcement jurisdiction over the tribe. 

Agreeing, the Third District Court of Appeal said the state’s right to a republican form of government under Article IV, Sec. 4 of the U.S. Constitution, and its reserved powers under the Tenth Amendment, necessarily included the right to sue in order to protect against corruption of the political process. 

Chin, joined by Chief Justices George and Justices Marvin R. Baxter and Carl A. Corrigan, agreed.

‘Constitutional Prerogatives’

While the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the sovereign immunity doctrine, Chin explained, the court has grown increasingly critical of its continued application given that Indian tribes have developed into “viable economic and political nations.”

The justice wrote. 

“The Tribe correctly notes that the high court has not applied the Tenth Amendment or the guarantee clause to uphold a state’s enforcement of a state election provision against a sovereign tribe But neither has the court held that the federal common law doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity trumps state authority when a state acts in political ‘matters resting firmly within [its] constitutional prerogatives.’”

Noting the tribe is a major donor to political campaigns, Chin said the FPPC’s inability to enforce the Political Reform Act against the group would substantially weaken the, which is vital in protecting the political process from corruption.

In a dissent joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Justice Carlos R. Moreno disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the high court as critical of sovereign immunity.

“[I]t is more accurate to say that the Supreme Court has not wavered from the principle that whatever problems arise from the conflict between Indian and state sovereignty are matters for Congress, exercising its plenary power over Indian affairs, to solve,” Moreno argued.

Neither the Tenth Amendment nor the guarantee clause supports limiting tribal sovereign immunity, Moreno said, noting the FPPC could obtain the desired information from the tribe by asking it to waive sovereign immunity in matters pertaining to political reporting requirements.

“Contrary to the majority’s view, the incentive of Indian tribes to do so is strong,”  the justice remarked. 

FPPC Chair Liane Randolph said that the high court’s ruling was an important victory for all voters, including those who are members of Indian tribes.

It “upholds the right of California to run its own elections and, under political reform laws passed by California voters, require detailed disclosure of campaign contributions and lobbying activity,” she said.

Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich said the tribe “is disappointed that the 4-3 decision by the court fails to follow established federal law,” and is deciding what further action to take.

The case is Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Superior Court (Fair Political Practices Commission), 06 S.O.S. 6210.


Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company