WASHINGTON (AP) _ The future of Indian gambling is up in the air after a Supreme Court ruling that states can't be forced into federal court to settle disputes over tribal casino plans, a Senate committee was told Thursday.

Tribes say federal law allows them to seek help from the secretary of the interior. But such action would be ``contrary to law, unwarranted, unwise and highly provocative,'' said Thomas Gede, a special assistant attorney general for California.

Without a process for mediating disputes, states are likely to have the upper hand in negotiating about starting new gambling operations and restricting existing ones.

At issue is whether the Interior Department can intervene in disputes that haven't gone to court first. Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting opinions.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is seeking public comment on how he should handle the disputes, but any decision ``is likely to draw legal challenges ... that may take years to resolve,'' Seth Waxman, associate deputy U.S. attorney general, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Interior Department lawyer John Leshy called the Supreme Court ruling a ``threat to the continued success'' of Indian gambling.

A 1988 law requires tribes to negotiate agreements, known as compacts, with their states before starting casino-style gambling. The compacts determine what kinds of games and machines the casinos can have and how they will be regulated.

The law allowed tribes that negotiate with states in good faith to sue them in federal court. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that was unconstitutional. While the law says tribes can seek help from the secretary of interior, state officials argue he can only step in after the case has gone to court.

Since the ruling was issued March 28, six tribes have asked the Interior Department to intervene in gambling cases.

California officials have been locked in a long court battle over whether tribes can have slot machines.

Wisconsin already has several Indian casinos, but the compacts begin expiring in 1998 and the state may seek stiffer regulations. South Dakota has indicated it will seek to renegotiate its compacts as they expire.

States whose tribal compacts have no expiration date, such as Minnesota, are not affected by the court decision.