In Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians v. Brown, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 864, the California Court of Appeal for the Third District rejected a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the governor’s authority to approve a land transfer allowing an Indian tribe to build a casino in Madera County. The court held the governor is not a public agency under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and therefore, he was not required to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) before approving the land transfer.
The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians (Picayune Tribe) filed the lawsuit after the governor concurred with a decision by the Department of the Interior (DOI) to allow the North Fork Band of Mono Indians (North Fork Tribe) to acquire land for a casino along Highway 99 in Madera County. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the governor is authorized to concur with the DOI’s determination that a casino would be in the best interest of the North Fork Tribe and not detrimental to the surrounding community. The Chukchansi Tribe contended the governor was a public agency under CEQA and his concurrence constituted a project under CEQA.
The court first looked to the definition of public agency in CEQA, which states that a public agency “includes any state agency, board, or commission, any county, city and county, city, regional agency, public district, redevelopment agency, or other political subdivision.” While the list was not exclusive, the court found the examples were all governmental bodies and because the governor was an individual, the governor was not intended to fall under the definition of a public agency.
The Picayune Tribe also contended that because the Government Code expressly exempts certain actions carried out by the governor and tribes from CEQA, then other actions by the governor must be subject to CEQA requirements. The Picayune Tribe pointed to Government Code section 12012.25(g), which exempted the negotiation and execution of intergovernmental agreements governing gaming operations from CEQA “in deference to tribal sovereignty.” The court held the Picayune Tribe’s interpretation was not the only possible meaning of this provision, and that the clause, “in deference to tribal sovereignty,” suggested the provision could also be interpreted as a clarification that the tribe’s actions were not subject to CEQA.
Finally, the court rejected the Picayune Tribe’s argument that public policy supported a broad interpretation of “public agency” in order to provide the fullest possible environmental protections. The court held CEQA section 21083.1 precluded the Picayune Tribe’s interpretation because the tribe’s interpretation would impose a procedural requirement beyond what was explicitly stated in the statute.
Under the rationale in this case, the governor of California is not a public agency for purposes of CEQA.