A local judge put a roadblock in the path of a lawsuit to retain the controversial Fresno County town name “Squaw Valley,” but also opened an avenue to keep the litigation going.
The county sued the state over a 2022 law — AB 2022 — that requires removing the word “Squaw” from California place names. The community is located off Highway 180 on the way to Kings Canyon National Park.
Last week, Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe issued a ruling granting the state’s request for a demurrer — a legal filing that essentially argues there were no merits to the Fresno County’s case. Tharpe ruled on the grounds that as a division of state government, the county cannot sue on constitutional grounds.
Citing several cases from California and beyond, Tharpe wrote “Thus, political subdivisions like cities and counties usually lack standing to sue the state that created them for violations of constitutional rights.”
Clovis attorney Brian Leighton, representing the county in the matter, disagreed.
“With all due respect to the judge — it was a thorough opinion — I just disagreed with his conclusion after he cites these various cases,” Leighton said. “A bunch of those other cases didn’t deal with a charter county in the state regarding a situation where the state was ordering the county to do things.”
A charter county, like Fresno County, has more self-rule than a non-charter county.
Tharpe did leave a crack in the door in his ruling. He said the county may filed a second, amended complaint, showing it has standing on behalf of the town’s residents.
Those residents would then be able to sue on their own and have standing, Leighton said.
The county will discuss the lawsuit in closed session at its Tuesday meeting. Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who represents the town, said he is inclined to continue action.
“I believe that the county does have the right to be able to file on behalf of its of its citizens,” Magsig said.
Magsig said he is concerned about the state taking away local control.
Rain Tree: Officials Don’t Follow Rules
In January, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which falls under the U.S. Dept. of Interior, changed its recognition of Squaw Valley to Yokuts Valley. The suggestion for the name change came from Fresno activist Roman Rain Tree, who has led the charge to eliminate the Squaw Valley name.
“I never thought they had a case to begin with. So I’m kind of pleasantly surprised,” Rain Tree said.
Rain Tree said he is more concerned about a proposal on the March 5, 2024 ballot, where voters will decided to give the Board of Supervisors the power to change geographic names.
“That’s more alarming to me, having elected officials that don’t seem to follow the rules, and they want to create new rules, let alone break them. They want to create rules so that they can keep the status quo,” Rain Tree said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not offer a new comment on the Tharpe ruling, but did refer to its previous statement on the Squaw Valley issue.
“Racist and sexist slurs have no place in our public spaces. AB 2022 builds on the Administration’s work to redress racist and exclusionary place names throughout the state in order to better reflect our values and ensure all our communities feel welcomed,” Newsom’s office said.
Judge Hesitant to Use ‘Sq__’ Term
The nine-page ruling kept the literal use of the word “squaw” to a minimum, often substituting “sq__.”
“The court acknowledges that the term ‘squaw’ is considered to be racist, sexist and offensive to many people. Therefore, the court will use the term ‘sq__’ in place of ‘squaw’ wherever possible in its ruling,” Tharpe wrote.
The case returns to court for a case management conference on Dec. 14.