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.
Campbell said 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.
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, said an appeal of Tuesday's ruling is being considered.
The dispute stems directly from a 2002 initiative sponsored by a majority of the state's tribes. It gave them exclusive right to operate casinos in Arizona in exchange for sharing some of the profits.
The deal also limited how many casinos each tribe could operate. In the case of the O'odham, 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 tribe'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.
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.
O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said Campbell's ruling "reaffirms that the (O'odham) 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, the building of a casino.