DECEMBER 22, 2006
As federally protected sovereign nations, Indian tribes are accustomed to ignoring campaign finance disclosure laws but a state Supreme Court has ended the immunity by ordering tribes to reveal the millions of dollars they annually donate to political campaigns.
The 4-3 California Supreme Court ruling will affect the Golden State’s more than 100 tribes, which have given at least $200 million to candidate and ballot measure campaigns in the last ten years. The money comes from their multi million-dollar casino operations and many of the donations go to promote issues that favor the mostly tax-free gambling empires.
The litigation came about when the state agency that oversees elections, the Fair Political Practices Commission, sued a Palm Springs tribe called Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for failing to disclose more than $8 million in donations between 1998 and 2000. The commission investigates violations of the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act, imposes penalties and monitors campaign financing and spending.
The wealthy 400-member Cahuilla Indians, owners of two lucrative casinos in Southern California, argued that they are sovereign governments immune from state intervention that includes lawsuits to enforce state laws. Two lower courts didn’t buy it and neither did the California Supreme Court, which ruled that the state has the right to regulate its electoral process under the United States Constitution’s 10th Amendment.
The court justified its ruling as an important tool to protect against political corruption in the wake of the huge influence of Indian casino money ($17 from the Cahuilla Indians in the last three years) in state elections. Writing for the majority, Justice Ming Chin said the state has a need to provide “a transparent election process with rules that apply to all parties who enter the political fray.”
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