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Law
Appeals court dismisses land claim in favor of state


A divided federal appeals court dismissed the 64,000 acre Cayuga land claim on Tuesday, ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court has "dramatically altered the legal landscape" of Indian land claims.

Two judges of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the Cayuga Nation of New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma waited too long to reclaim their original reservation. After 25 years of litigation, they tossed the entire lawsuit, nullified $248 million award to the tribes, and entered a judgment for the state of New York.

The dramatic conclusion was based on an expansive interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in the Sherrill v. Oneida Nation case. Judge Jose Cabranes and Judge Rosemary Pooler said the high court, for the first time, ruled that Indian land claims can be dismissed if they are too "disruptive" to non-Indian communities.

"Under the Sherrill formulation, this type of possessory land claim -- seeking possession of a large swath of central New York State and the ejectment of tens of thousands of landowners -- is indisputably disruptive," Cabranes wrote for the majority.

Therefore, non-Indians can raise defenses that would not otherwise be allowed in tribal land claims cases, the majority reasoned. In the case of New York, the state argued that the tribes waited too long to seek possession and monetary damages for 64,000 acres that were stolen a series of treaties that were never ratified by the federal government, as required by federal law.

Even thought the court said it was "undisputed" that the transactions were illegal, the judges refused to remedy the wrong due to lengthy delay in the filing of the claim. They cited language in the Sherrill case that referred to impact such a delay has on the "justifiable expectations" of non-Indian communities.

The judges also said the nature of the initial complaint -- to claim possession of the 64,000 acres and eviction of current landowners -- presented far too much of a burden on non-Indians. Even though a lower court ruled that ejectment is not an option and that a $248 million judgment rather than land was a proper remedy, Cabranes concluded the tribes should be penalized for the way they framed the case 25 years ago.

"The nature of the claim as a 'possessory claim,' as characterized by the district court, underscores our decision to treat this claim like the tribal sovereignty claims in Sherrill," the majority stated.

The decision prompted a lengthy dispute from Judge Janet Hall. Although she agreed that the Sherrill has changed the legal landscape, she said "it does not reach as far as the majority reads it."

She said Sherrill certainly bars the tribes from being awarded the land at issue. But she said the claim at issue in that case -- whether the Oneida Nation can revive its sovereignty over ancestral territories -- is not present in the Cayuga case.

"Nothing in City of Sherrill suggests a total bar on the ability of Indian tribes to obtain damages for past wrongs where Congress has explicitly provided for it," Hull wrote.

Hull said the majority overstated the effects of the Sherrill case. The Supreme Court limits tribes to the type of legal "relief" they seek in land claims cases but not the remedies --- such as monetary damages -- available to them, the judge noted.

She also said the majority failed to justify its decision to treat the United States in the same manner as the tribes. The federal government intervened in the case as a trustee for the tribes and cannot be subject to the "laches," or length of time, defense raised by the state, Hull argued.

The 2nd Circuit ruling is the latest fallout from the Sherrill decision of March 29. Local governments have hit the Oneida Nation with millions of dollars in bills for failing to pay property taxes for land within its ancestral territory.

The Supreme Court, in the 8-1 decision, said it was careful not to disturb its previous holding that the Oneida Nation has a right to seek redress for the theft of 250,000 acres. But local officials have used the decision to seek authority over tribe, as well as the Cayuga Nation and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe.

The Sherrill decision also effectively killed land claim settlements for four tribes, including the two Cayuga tribes and two tribes from Wisconsin. Gov. George Pataki (R) had reached deals to allow the tribes to open casinos in the Catskills in exchange for dropping their lawsuits.

Pataki has since submitted a bill to settle the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's claim for a casino. But he said the 2nd Circuit ruling will definitely play a role in future deals.

"Today's decision is a tremendous victory for property owners and taxpayers in central New York," he said in a statement. "We will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to protect New Yorkers –- from Grand Island to Long Island –- as we move forward to resolve any remaining land claims within the state."

Get the Decision:
Cayuga Nation v. New York (June 28, 2005)

Sherrill v. Oneida Nation Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]