Supreme Court won't disturb victory in Oneida Nation land case

A citizen of the Oneida Nation looks at a painting at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Oneida Nation

In a positive development for the Oneida Nation, the U.S. Supreme Court has turned down one case affecting the tribe's land rights.

Without comment, the justices on Monday denied the petition in Central New York Fair Business Association v. Zinke. The move, which came on the third page of an order list, affirms a lower court victory in favor of the federal government's authority to place about 13,000 acres into trust for the New York-based tribe.

But the new Trump administration and the tribe are not yet in the clear. A second petition, Upstate Citizens for Equality v. U.S., which raises more questions about the tribe's land-into-trust application, is also pending before the nation's highest court.

The dispute stretches back to the Supreme Court's disastrous decision in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation. By a vote of 8-1, the justices held that the tribe must follow the land-into-trust process before asserting sovereignty over lands within its original reservation.

In the March 2005 ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the "Oneidas long ago relinquished the reins of government and cannot regain them" by simply repurchasing property within the reservation.

The tribe quickly took action by filing a land-into-trust application for essential government, economic development and other properties. After a lengthy review, the Bureau of Indian Affairs finalized the reord of decision covering about 13,000 acres in May 2008.

But opponents, including local officials, the state government and anti-Indian organizations, quickly filed suit in federal court. The state and some local parties eventually withdrew after reaching a settlement in 2013 that addressed taxation, jurisdiction and other long-standing issues.

The BIA finally acquired the 13,000 acres in trust in 2014, paving the way for the resolution of the outstanding litigation. The Central New York Fair Business Association plaintiffs, who raised general constitutional questions about the application, lost their case before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in December.

The Upstate Citizens for Equality plaintiffs, who are raising similar constitutional questions, lost their 2nd Circuit case in November. But their petition to the Supreme Court also brings up an issue not answered by Sherrill -- whether the tribe's 300,000-acre reservation, which was recognized by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, still exists.

The petition was filed on April 26 and the Trump administration has until June 1 to respond. Government attorneys didn't bother responding to the Central New York case but it's not clear whether they will do the same for Upstate Citizens. Waivers are common in cases where one party doesn't think the petition stands a chance of being granted.

The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua was one of the first signed by the newly-formed United States. The Oneidas had sided with American colonists during the Revolutionary War, a history that is featured in the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Decisions:
Central New York Fair Business Association v. Zinke (December 9, 2016)
Upstate Citizens for Equality v. United States of America (November 9, 2016)

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