California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians

480 U. S. 202

February 25, 1987

The Cabazon Indian tribe of California regularly conducted bingo and card games for profit, in apparent violation of both state and county ordinances. Federal policy generally exempts Indians from state and local law, but one federal law did give California broad authority in the realm of criminal law, and some narrower authority in the realm of civil law. Another federal law made violations of state gambling laws a federal crime.

Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice White held that the state and local law did not apply to the Indians. Because California did allow bingo and card games in certain situations, White characterized the state’s laws on the subject as civil rather than criminal. With regard to the law that made violations of state laws a federal crime, White simply reasoned that a federal law could logically not be enforced and prosecuted by a state. Finally, after weighing the federal policy of promoting Indian gambling, and California’s asserted need to crack down on organized crime, he concluded that California’s interests were too weak in the face of Indian sovereignty to justify the enforcement of its civil laws in this instance.

Stevens dissented, and was joined by O’Connor and Scalia. He cited precedents where the Court had held state law applicable to Indian tribes on the civil law issues of alcohol and tobacco. Gambling, he said, should be no different. He also felt that California’s organized crime rationale was persuasive, and that Congress had never explicitly given support to exemptions for Indian gambling.

His dissent also contained this astonishingly bad and inapt analogy: “To argue that the tribal bingo games comply with the public policy of California because the State permits some other gambling is tantamount to arguing that driving over 60 miles an hour is consistent with public policy because the State allows driving at speeds of up to 55 miles an hour.”

Thus, for the second time in two days, Stevens totally brushed aside any respect for Indian sovereignty. I’m not drawing any conclusions yet, but I can’t deny that the word racism has flitted across my mind. To be fair, his discussion of the precedents is more convincing than White’s, but I’m willing to believe that those precedents were wrongly decided. I’m not particularly happy that so many Indian tribes resort to gambling as a means of income, and I’m a bit perturbed that the Department of the Interior would back the practice so vigorously. At the same time though, it was rather heartless for California to try to deprive the Cabazon band of its only real source of sustenance.


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