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Law
Supreme Court to hear dispute over Oneida Nation land


Ignoring the advice of the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether the Oneida Nation of New York must pay property taxes on ancestral territory.

Without comment, the justices accepted a case with implications for several tribes. In addition to the Oneida Nation, at least three other tribes are purchasing land in the state in hopes of opening gaming establishments and starting other economic development projects.

Those plans hinge on whether reservations promised to the tribes more than 200 years ago still exist. So far, tribes have scored a string of victories in their quest to reclaim their homelands.

The successes are in doubt now that the case has been accepted by the Supreme Court, which has ruled against tribal interests in a slew of cases in recent years. But an Oneida Nation spokesperson said the tribe is taking an optimistic outlook.

"Two federal courts have already ruled in favor of the nation and the nation is hopeful the Supreme Court will find similarly," Mark Emery, the tribe's director of communications, said.

In a critical ruling last July, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua "remains in force." The tribe's land purchases in the treaty area, the court said by a 2-1 vote, are therefore considered Indian Country, free from state and local taxes.

The decision was a blow to the city of Sherrill, which tried to impose property taxes on the tribe's land. The city appealed, citing doubts over the treaty and the tribe's legitimacy.

At the request of the high court, the Department of Justice submitted a brief in the tribe's favor last month. Solicitor General Ted Olson, a Bush administration appointee who is retiring next month, said the tribe's land "is entitled to the same immunity from state and local taxation that tribal land in a reservation presumptively enjoys."

The brief urged the court to ignore other questions being raised by the city, including jurisdiction, sovereignty and land claims. "[T]his case —- which involves taxation of land that the tribe has reacquired —- would not be a suitable vehicle for resolution of the full range of those issues," government lawyers wrote.

Those issues are at the center of controversy as other tribes, citing the Oneida case, have reasserted their ties to New York. Just this past March, the Cayuga Nation was given approval to build a Class II gaming hall on ancestral territory without following local laws.

The tribe's relatives, the Seneca-Cayugas of Oklahoma, have similar plans but construction of a Class II facility is on hold pending resolution in the courts. Both tribes are in talks to settle gaming and land claim issues with Gov. George Pataki (R).

The Oneida Nation and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, both from Wisconsin, also have shown an intent to return to New York. The tribes have made land purchases in the state recently.

The Supreme Court previously took on Oneida land issues nearly 20 years ago, allowing a lawsuit over 250,000 acres of land to move forward. A settlement, which could resolve the tax isuse, has eluded the tribe and the state.

The Supreme Court did not announce when it would hear the case but oral arguments are likely in early 2005.

Relevant Documents:
Department of Justice Brief | Supreme Court Docket Sheet No. 03-855

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

Decision in Oneida Indian Nation v. City of Sherrill:
Majority Opinion | Van Graafeiland Dissent

Decision in Cayuga Indian Nation v. Village of Union Springs:
Decision | Order (April 23, 2004)