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
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
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.
of Justice Brief
Court Docket Sheet No. 03-855
Oneida Nation - http://www.oneida-nation.net
Decision in Oneida Indian Nation v. City of Sherrill
| Van Graafeiland Dissent
Decision in Cayuga Indian Nation v. Village of Union
(April 23, 2004)