The federal appeals panel in San Francisco said the tribe's governing documents do not allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to review the tribe's decision to disenroll members.
The Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria has fewer than 100 voting members and occupies 200 acres in Mendocino County. In 1995, it voted to remove 22 people from its membership roll, all members of the Sloan-Heckler family.
The tribe claimed the Sloan-Hecklers were ineligible for membership because they were affiliated with other tribes and/or accepted money from a settlement involving the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Yurok Tribe.
However, the family reportedly did not enroll with either tribe.
Some speculated that the tribe wanted to shrink enrollment to boost payouts from its Red Fox Casino to existing tribe members.
The tribe's attorney asked the BIA to "honor the action taken by the tribe ... and recognize the existing tribal members." The agency instead referred the matter to the tribe's executive council.
It echoed this hands-off approach when disenrolled member Gene Sloan appealed the tribe's action in 1999.
But in 2000, the BIA's superintendent and regional director said the agency would not recognize the tribe's decision to disenroll the Sloan-Hecklers.
The Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which has jurisdiction over agency decisions, reversed, saying "BIA officials lacked decision-making authority in the circumstances."
Nonetheless, the BIA explicitly took up Sloan's appeal in 2009. It refused to recognize the disenrollments and ordered the tribe to put the disenrolled members back on its membership roll.
The tribe challenged the action in federal court, saying the BIA's involvement violated the Administrative Procedures Act.
A federal judge upheld the agency's decision as "not in excess of its authority," and the tribe appealed.
"We hold that the tribe's ordinance is unambiguous and that it provides a right of appeal only for rejections of enrollment applications, not for disenrollment decisions," Judge Michael Hawkins wrote for the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit.
"Nowhere in the tribal documents is there a grant of authority to the BIA to review appeals from disenrollment decisions," the panel concluded.
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