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Law
Oneida Nation gets respite in property tax fight


A federal judge put a halt to foreclosure proceedings against the Oneida Nation on Friday, saving the New York tribe from millions of dollars in property tax payments.

U.S. District Judge David Hurd ordered Madison County not to proceed with any action against the tribe pending further rulings. In a seven-page decision, he said there was no need to "rush to judgment in a complex case" that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"In order to preserve the ability to a reach a decision in this case, over which jurisdiction exists, it is necessary to enjoin the County from pursuing foreclosure in state court with regard to any Nation-owned property," Hurd wrote.

Hurd imposed an injunction on the county, which claims the tribe owes $3 million in unpaid property taxes. The judge also ordered the tribe to post a bond in that amount in order to preserve the injunction.

The move gives the Oneida Nation more time to argue its position in federal court. Attorneys say the tribe, as a sovereign, can't be taxed by another jurisdiction.

Officials in upstate New York disagree. Citing the Supreme Court's March 29 ruling in the case, they say the tribe is subject to local taxes and laws on 17,000 acres within two counties.

The tribe purchased the land on the open market. But in an 8-1 ruling, the justices said the properties can't be considered Indian Country because the tribe waited too long to assert sovereignty over them.

The court also said the tribe never went through the land-into-trust process for land within the borders of the tribe's 250,000-acre historic reservation, which was stolen by the state in illegal transactions.

The tribe has since submitted applications to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to acquire all of the lands in trust. However, the top two acting officials said the agency wouldn't do so unless the tax issue was resolved.

"In the event these taxes are not paid, we believe such lands are subject to foreclosure," associate deputy Interior secretary Jim Cason said in a June 10 letter to the tribe.

Hurd gave no indication which way he might rule on the taxation issue. But he chastised the county for trying to rush the case through the state court system.

The County also recognizes the 'complexity, scope and significance of this case,'" Hurt wrote. "It states that there is no urgency to the resolution of the case, yet forges ahead to obtain foreclosure in state court at the earliest possible date."

The foreclosure proceedings are just one of several developments that have taken place since the Supreme Court decision. In the most significant, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the 64,000-acre Cayuga land claim and a $247 million judgment, ruling that the Cayuga Nation of New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma waited too long to seek justice.

The decision also prompted the state of New York to pull land claim settlements with three out-of-state tribes. Gov. George Pataki (R), however, plans to meet with the Oneida Nation to discuss settling the tribe's claim, which has been pending for over 25 years.

Get the Decision:
Oneida Nation v. Madison County (July 1, 2005)

Bureau of Indian Affairs Documents:
Jim Cason / Mike Olsen (June 10, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation - http://www.oneida-nation.net

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