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Lawyers for the state Fair Political Practices Commission took hope Wednesday when the California Supreme Court ordered a Sacramento appeal court to decide whether Indian tribes are immune from suits enforcing state campaign finance laws. But so did attorneys for the tribe at the heart of the case. “This is an opportunity for us to obtain an appellate decision on this extremely important issue,” Steven Russo, the FPPC’s chief of enforcement, said, almost echoing the tribe’s lawyers. “And that’s something the commission was interested in when we embarked on this litigation.” Six of the high court’s justices signed the order to show cause that transferred the case back to the Third District Court of Appeal. Justice Janice Rogers Brown was absent and didn’t vote. Millions of dollars of tribal contributions to political campaigns are at stake. In 2002, the FPPC sued the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, alleging that it filed late reports on more than $7.5 million in donations to state candidates and committees in 1998. The suit also said the tribe failed to timely disclose more than $1 million in late contributions. The tribe argued immunity as a sovereign nation from state campaign laws, but Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster disagreed Feb. 27, saying California had a sovereign right to oversee its elections. “If large contributors to the electoral and initiative process — like the tribe — were not subject to FPPC enforcement actions,” the judge wrote, “the institutions and processes of California’s government would be subverted to a significant extent.” The tribe’s petition for writ of mandate to the Third District was denied April 24 in a single-sentence order signed by Justice Richard Sims. Wednesday’s order forces the Third District to resolve the issue of tribal immunity. Both the FPPC and the tribe took the order as a positive sign. “As we noted [in Supreme Court papers],” the FPPC’s Russo said, “there are problems inherent in the fact that the trial court ruling isn’t a precedential decision.” His agency wants an appellate ruling on the case, he noted, because there is a contrary Sacramento County Superior Court opinion involving the Santa Rosa Rancheria band of the Tachi Yokut Tribe. The Agua Caliente band’s lawyer, James Martin, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Reed Smith Crosby Heafey, said the Third District’s April order was final immediately, so the tribe petitioned the California Supreme Court. Now, he added, the Third District has been told “that rather than deny the writ, they need to hear it and resolve the question.” “There is ample controlling precedent,” Martin said, “for asserting that the state of California cannot enforce its campaign finance laws in state courts against the Agua Caliente or any other federally regulated, sovereign tribe.” The case is Agua Caliente Band v. Superior Court (FPPC), S115699. Also on Wednesday, the high court agreed to decide if a company’s officers, agents or directors can be held individually liable for violating state overtime wage laws. Los Angeles’ Second District had held in April that they cannot. In Reynolds v. Bement, S115823, the officers, agents and directors of Earl Scheib Inc., an automobile painting company, had been accused of forcing shop managers and assistant shop managers to work unpaid overtime hours in violation of state law. Several trade groups, as well as legal groups representing the poor or ethnic communities, had signed on in support of the plaintiffs. All the justices, except Marvin Baxter and the absent Brown, voted for review.

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