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Oneida Lawsuit vs. New York Goes to U.S. Supreme Court

A lawsuit that has been in the court system for 37 years has finally made its way to the highest court in the country. The Oneida Indian Nation of New York and the U.S. government have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision that denied the nation’s right to reclaim land illegally taken by the state of New York or be compensated for it. The appeals court denial conflicts with an earlier Supreme Court ruling that supported the nation’s claim for compensation.

In the original lawsuit filed against New York state’s Madison and Oneida counties in 1974, the Oneida Indian Nation claimed 250,000 acres of ancestral lands and relief going back more than 200 years when the lands were conveyed in multiple transactions to the state of New York. The transactions were illegal under the 1790 Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, commonly referred to as the Nonintercourse Act, that prohibits Indian lands from being sold or otherwise transferred without the approval of Congress.

The case reached the 2nd Circuit last August, where a panel of judges issued a majority ruling that the nation has no “possessory right” to reclaim the 250,000 acres taken by the state of New York (and sold for profit) nor does it have a “non-possessory right” to claim restitution, estimated by the Oneidas to be at least $500 million. The nation asked for a rehearing of the case, but was denied in December. The petition for a writ of certiorari—a document asking the Supreme Court to review the decision of a lower court—was filed in mid-May. In addition to the Oneida Indian Nation, the plaintiffs include the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin and the Oneida of the Thames.

The petition for cert presents two questions to the high court:

• Whether the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals contravened the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Oneida, and City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York by ruling that “equitable considerations” rendered the nation’s claims for money damages void;

• Whether the court of appeals impermissibly encroached on the legislative power of Congress by relying on “equitable considerations” to bar the nation’s claims as untimely even though they were brought within the statute of limitations fixed by Congress for the precise tribal-land claims at issue here.

The Oneidas originally possessed and occupied around 6 million acres in central New York and managed to hold onto a reservation of about 300,000 acres even after the state of New York obtained most of the Oneidas’ territory in 1788, the petition says. In 1793 Congress strengthened the 1790 Nonintercourse Act by adding that “no purchase” made in violation of the act “shall be of any validity in law or equity” and added criminal penalties for violators. The next year the nation and federal government signed the Treaty of Canandaigua, which recognizes the Oneidas’ right to possess the reservation lands and guarantees the tribe’s continued possession of it. Regardless of the treaty and the Nonintercourse Act, the state of New York kept acquiring land from the Oneidas without the approval of Congress and vastly profiting from it—despite being warned by the federal government that it was violating federal law. In 1795, for example, the state paid about 50 cents per acre for land, and then sold it for $3.53 an acre. By 1846, the state had illegally acquired almost all of the 300,000 acres, leaving the nation with only around 1,000 acres of its aboriginal territory.

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Fast forward to 1974, to the genesis of the current petition in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1974 lawsuit, known as Oneida II, lay dormant for almost 25 years while the nation pursued a “test case,” known as Oneida I, that sought fair rental value from Madison and Oneida counties for occupying a small portion of their ancestral lands for the period January 1, 1968 through December 31, 1969 to establish the principle that tribal possessory claims are subject to money damages. That case wended its way through lower courts and reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The high court said the nation had a common law right to pursue the action, but questioned whether “equitable considerations”—a set of legal principles under which people cannot assert their legal rights if it would be “unconscionable” for them to do so—“should limit the relief available to the present-day Oneida Indians.” On remand, the federal district court awarded damages to the nation of around $57,000.

Soon after that ruling was handed down, the nation filed Oneida II, seeking redress for the 250,000 acres of land unlawfully acquired by the state and counties. In 1998, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the nation and the state of New York was added as a defendant. The nation sought money damages based on two claims: First, that similar trespass damages had been awarded in Oneida I on the nation’s assertion that the land acquisition violated the Nonintercourse Act; and second, the nation sought compensation for the difference in value “between the price at which New York state acquired or transferred each portion of the subject lands from the Oneida Indian Nation and its value…with interest,” according to court documents.

While Oneida II was pending in district court, a related case, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, was resolved. It set a precedent across Indian country for land rights cases involving aboriginal territory. The nation had purchased various parcels of land within its acknowledged aboriginal reservation area in fee simple, that is, as regular property owners with the responsibility to meet local and federal requirements, such as paying taxes and abiding by zoning and other laws within the jurisdiction, and sought to exercise its tribal sovereignty over them, including its right to be exempt from taxes. The City of Sherrill sued and the case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 2005 ruling, the high court cited the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua acknowledging the Oneidas’ 300,000-acre reservation and the treaty’s guarantee of their ‘free use and enjoyment” of the land and noted that New York state had continued to purchase Oneida land in violation of the 1790 Nonintercourse Act. But it used the Doctrine of Laches, a legal principle similar to a statute of limitations for filing a claim to conclude that—treaty or no treaty—it was just too late for the nation to claim the land. The “standards of federal Indian law and federal equity practice precluded the tribe from rekindling embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold,” the majority wrote. Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote Sherrill’s dissenting opinion, said the majority’s action failed to fully protect the interests of Indians and, therefore, breached its responsibilities to the Oneida Nation under the Federal Indian Trust Doctrine.

The high court did say, however, that the question of damages for the nation’s ancient dispossession was not addressed in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, and it remained open.

Based on that Supreme Court ruling, the district court granted the defendants in the nation’s 1974 Oneida case a summary judgment dismissing the nation’s “possessory” claims, but denied the “non-possessory” claims for money damages. When the appeal reached the 2nd Circuit last summer, Judges Joseph McLaughlin and Debra Ann Livingston ruled in the majority to deny the nation’s claim for money damages. In her dissenting opinion, District Judge Nina Gershon wrote, “With this decision, the majority forecloses (the Oneida Nation) from bringing any claims seeking any remedy for their treatment at the hands of the state.” She agreed that the Oneidas could not reclaim their land, but said the tribes had a right to be paid for their losses.

The nation’s attorneys have presented several reasons why the high court should grant its petition. They argue that the appeals court ruling conflicts with the “settled and fundamental” principle that Laches does not apply when the U.S. government brings a lawsuit. They say in their petition that the appeals court ruling “is directly contrary to this court’s decision in Oneida II, which upheld the counties’ liability on just such a claim.” Oneida attorneys also argue that the appeals court decision encroaches on the authority of Congress to preserve tribes’ claims and they challenge the ruling that the tribe waited too long to pursue its land claim, saying there is no statute of limitations in this matter. The nation also argues that the appeals court decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s findings in the Sherrill case that the nation could not regain possession of the land but had the right to monetary damages.

The federal government, which filed a separate petition for certiorari with the high court, says the 2nd Circuit decision ignores Congress’s authority to preserve tribes’ claims and “calls into question the ability of the United States to exercise its sovereign right to enforce federal statutes and treaties adopted for the benefit of Indians.” The government argues that the court’s failure to reverse the state’s violation of the 1790 Nonintercourse Act during the purchase of Indian lands violated the proprietary rights of the nation and the federal government’s rights.

Briefs on opposition to the nation’s petition are due in court on June 20.