WASHINGTON - U.S. Supreme Court judges dashed hopes of several Iroquois
(Haudenosaunee) nations for a speedy affirmation of their land rights when
they voted June 24 to accept the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian
The action, technically granting a writ of certiorari, keeps open issues of
tribal freedom from local taxes that lower courts had firmly resolved in
favor of the Oneidas. The action came in a one-two legal blow to the
Upstate New York Nation, practically on the same day that a lower New York
state court ruled that the 11-year-old compact governing the Oneida's
Turning Stone Casino violated the state constitution.
(An Oneida Indian Nation enterprise, Four Directions Media, publishes
Indian Country Today.)
Although the state court issues could be quickly resolved by a vote in the
New York State Legislature without interrupting casino operations, the U.S.
Supreme Court acceptance of the Sherrill case will set in motion months of
brief writing involving basic questions of tribal reservation rights. The
Sherrill case will head for an oral argument before the nine Justices some
time next year.
The Supreme Court judges decided to accept the Sherrill case in a June 24
conference after earlier requesting a brief from the U.S. government on the
issues. U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued strongly against the
grant of certiorari, saying that the Iroquois land claims suits now
crawling through lower courts would provide a better basis for deciding
major issues. He characterized the Sherrill case as a narrow ruling on
whether Indian title remained valid on illegally alienated former
reservation territory reacquired by the Oneida Nation.
The state lower court decision in the case of Peterman v. Pataki tracked an
earlier ruling by the state's highest court voiding a casino compact with
the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk tribe. Former governor Mario Cuomo signed
both compacts without submitting them to the state legislature, an omission
the State Court of Appeals ruled violated the New York constitutional
provision for separation of powers.
In mid-June, the legislature approved a renegotiated Mohawk compact that
keeps open the Akwesasne Casino in Hogansburg, N.Y.
St. Regis Tribal Council spokesman Brendan White said the casino employed
460, 70 percent of whom were non-Native, and pumped $45 million into the
According to White, the new compact provides for "revenue sharing" with the
state of 18 percent of the slot machine take, increasing to 25 percent over
the seven-year term. It also requires that 25 percent of the state share be
returned regionally to Franklin and St. Lawrence counties. In return, the
casino will have the right to operate 1,000 Class III slot machines, with
exclusivity for six northern New York counties. The exclusivity provision
is crucial to winning approval from the BIA, which has not yet signed off
on the compact.
The St. Regis council also agreed to settle outstanding bills from previous
subcontractors. White said final payments "would go out very soon. We were
waiting for the compact to be passed."
The terms generally track the Seneca Nation of Indians compact negotiated
in 2002. White said the St. Regis council was relieved to keep the casino
open and avoid a disastrous hit on the reservation economy. "This is very
good for us," he said.
Any discussion of revising the Oneida compact, however, "is premature at
this point," said Oneida Nation spokesman Jerry Reed. He noted that the
state legislature had recessed for the summer and repeated the brief
"The nation's compact is valid under federal law. The Legislature has just
approved the Mohawk compact. The nation is confident it will do the same
for the Oneidas. It's no big deal."
The suit against the Oneida's Turning Stone Casino was originally
instituted by Scott Peterman, a former leader of the Upstate Citizens for
Equality (UCE). The group, once regular picketers at Oneida Nation
businesses, had become less active over the past year and Peterman recently
announced his resignation with a statement of frustration.
The Peterman decision, a 10-page letter decision by Acting Supreme Court
Judge John W. McCarthy, disposed of the three-year-old lawsuit quickly by
applying the New York State Court of Appeals precedent in Saratoga Country
Chamber of Commerce, Inc. v. Pataki. (In New York, the Court of Appeals is
the state's highest court and the Supreme Courts are the lowest level.) He
saw no difference between Cuomo's negotiation of the Oneida compact in
April 1993 and his October 1993 agreement with the St. Regis Mohawks, which
was invalidated in the Saratoga decision.