PHOENIX -- A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the last vestiges of a challenge to a new casino in Glendale, saying it's legally irrelevant whether the state -- or even voters -- thought the deal they were approving precluded it.
Judge David Campbell did not dispute contentions by the state and two other tribes that Edward Manuel, who was chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation in 2002, personally represented to editorial boards of two Tucson newspapers that the gaming compact meant there would be no additional casinos in the Phoenix area. Nor did Campbell get into the issue of whether lobbyist Joe Abate told lawmakers that the number of casinos in Maricopa County at that time would be frozen.
What Campbell did conclude is that it the only thing that matters is what is in the compact itself.
"It does not contain a ban on new casinos in the Phoenix area,'' the judge wrote. And Campbell said there is no way to read its terms in any other way, even with all the outside evidence of what might have been what some people understood.
Tuesday's ruling is another major setback for foes of the casino who have tried -- and lost -- various legal efforts to prevent the Tohono O'odham from building a casino on land they bought a decade ago. Campbell and federal appellate courts have previously rejected other contentions, including that Congress, in allowing the tribe to purchase the land, never intended to let the tribe build a casino on the property.
But it is unlikely to be the last word in the court fights that have dragged on for years. Gregory Mendoza, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, called Tuesday's ruling a "setback'' and said an appeal is being considered.
This fight stems directly from a 2002 initiative sponsored by a majority of the tribes. It gave them exclusive right to operate casinos in the state in exchange for sharing some of the profits.
The deal also limited how many casinos each tribe could operate, and how many gaming machines could be at each site. In the case of the Tohono, who were operating two casinos at the time, the tribe was given permission to add two more.
Subsequent to voter approval, the tribe purchased the land near Glendale, using money from a 1986 law designed to compensate the tribe for property lost from a federal dam project. That law also allowed the tribe to petition to have the property made part of the reservation, a necessary precursor to operating a casino.
The state and other tribes contend the intent always was to have the Tohono's additional casinos located on land that was already part of its existing reservation, mainly in Pima County. But Campbell pointed out that the actual language in what voters approved -- and what the tribes and the state all signed -- does have an escape clause, permitting casinos on property later acquired as part of a land-settlement deal approved by Congress, precisely what happened in this case.
Campbell previously ruled that the language in that compact was unambiguous. But he agreed to give foes a chance to argue that the state was proceeding under the belief there would be no new casinos in Maricopa County and, more to the point, that Tohono O'odham officials knew the state was misinterpreting the terms.
The judge said Tuesday none of that matters. He said that, in the legal sense, the contract was "fully integrated,'' meaning what is in writing cannot be voided by any other oral agreements or understandings.
"Plaintiffs have presented no evidence that the integration clause means anything other than what it says,'' Campbell wrote. "Even if plaintiffs could establish that a separate agreement existed between the state and the (Tohono) Nation, they could not enforce such an agreement in the fact of the fully integrated compact.''
The Gila River Indian Community has been at the forefront of the fight along with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Officials at both tribes have said their interest is in keeping the promise made to voters in 2002.
But both tribes also have a financial interest: A new casino at the edge of Glendale could siphon off some of their customers.
Tohono Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said Campbell's ruling "reaffirms that the (Tohono) Nation has been following the rules all along.'' But a few hurdles remain before the tribe can start construction on the $550 million complex, including final resolution of whether the land, on a county island surrounded by Glendale, is "within'' the city limits and therefore ineligible for reservation status and, by extension, building of a casino.