SYRACUSE, N.Y. ? A new ruling in the Cayuga Indian Nation land claim suit appears to cut both ways in the unfolding attempt by the Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin to launch suits against individual landowners in upstate New York.
U.S. District Court Judge Neal P. McCurn handed down the ruling on March 11. He repeated his opposition to including individual landowners as defendants in the federal case. But a lawyer for the Cayugas said the issue could arise in other cases. And McCurn also appeared to uphold a precedent that would affirm the standing of the Wisconsin Oneidas in their New York cases.
The Cayugas filed the case seeking the return of over 64,000 acres of former reservation lands they claimed was illegally acquired 200 years ago.
A stumbling block to settlement of the case has been the inclusion of 7,000 individual landowners in Cayuga and Seneca Counties as defendants. McCurn removed the individual landowners in a parallel suit by the federal government leaving the state as the only defendant.
"Currently the U.S. policy with respect to New York land claims including the present one, is 'not to seek relief from parties ? that acquired the land in good faith,'" said McCurn in the official decision.
McCurn wrote in the decision this was done "Partially to avoid the unfathomable task of 'conducting separate jury trials with respect to the approximately 7,000 private landowners, as well as other non-State defendants,' among other things, in Cayuga XI this court granted the U.S.'s motion 'to first proceed to trial against the State.'"
According to Raymond J. Heslin, attorney for the Cayugas, this does not mean that action will not be taken against individual landowners in another trial.
"We don't want to endanger their homes," said Heslin of the private landowners. He added that the Cayugas would proceed with legal actions that could eventually lead to evictions unless New York State assumes responsibility for all damages.
The State can appeal either the amount of damages awarded in the trial or McCurn's decision to release the individual landowners as defendants in the federal suit.
McCurn also granted a motion allowing the State to delay payment of the settlement because of the significant burden that may be placed on the taxpayers.
"As has been the case since prejudgment interest issue first arose in this case, the figures are not inconsequential," wrote McCurn.
Heslin said there are several precedent-setting issues in the decision that have implications for other land claim cases in the state. He explained that the despite the fact the Cayugas do not occupy their homeland, they were awarded damages in the form of rent and interest. Other tribes that have become dispossessed from their territory can take similar courses.
"They certainly have that opportunity," said Heslin.
Bobbi Webster, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Oneidas, said a comprehensive legal review of McCurn's decision had not yet been made.
"We are all very interested in the Cayuga case and will probably make a comment on any precedent-type issues," said Webster.