Supreme Court Drops Cayuga Land Claim Case: Decision Jeopardizes Historic Claims Suits


CAYUGA HOMELANDS, N.Y. – Slamming the door on the Cayuga Indian Nation’s generation-old land claim in central New York and threatening an end to similar lawsuits across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court declined on May 15 to add the case to its fall docket.

The decision, announced without explanation, lets stand a ruling by a sharply divided 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals panel dismissing the Cayuga case out of hand. The 26-year-old federal lawsuit had generated some 18 lower court decisions, a District Court judge’s ruling upholding the Cayuga claims and a jury trial monetary award raised by the judge to nearly $248 million.

The 2nd Circuit Court reversal by Judge Jose Cabranes was so sweeping and, according to some critics, so filled with “legal errors” that it seemed a strong candidate for the rarely granted Supreme Court review. The one dissenter on the three-judge panel filed a long, closely argued opinion strongly critical of Cabranes’ “novel” reworking of the law.

The court’s inaction surprised and shocked veterans of the Indian law field. “I think it’s disgraceful,” said Robert “Tim” Coulter, counsel for the Indian Law Resource Center. Richard Guest, attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said the court had become “result-driven,” bending legal principles or making them up to frustrate Indian claims based on solid precedent.

Tribal leaders were less diplomatic.

“The Supreme Court, in refusing to accept the Cayuga appeal, has established itself as the most anti-Indian court in the history of the United States,” said St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief James W. Ransom.

St. Regis Tribal Chief Lorraine M. White added, “It continues to amaze me at how biased courts have become toward Natives. The latest decision by the Supreme Court sounds an alarm to all tribes that it’s open hunting season on them in the judicial system and that Indian issues have no chance in being fairly resolved if they are taken into the courts.” A statement from the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs said, “Ignoring these historic wrongs and injustices is just another chapter in this shameful history of the genocide against Native peoples in this country.”

In a statement, Clint Halftown, the federally recognized chief of the deeply divided Cayuga Nation, said, “Our history has taught us to expect little and today’s decision confirms what we always suspected – that we can’t and should never have trusted this process.”

Tribal frustration was mirrored by jubilation from upstate New York politicians and activists who have fought bitterly against the revival of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Some called for an end to all land claims negotiations with the state’s Indians and an immediate effort by the state to dismiss the half-dozen other ongoing suits.

A lawyer for the Cayugas said that now that its land claim suit was dead, the nation would concentrate on a land-into-trust application now pending with the Interior Department.

The Cayuga Nation recently operated two small Class II

gaming rooms on land they claimed as sovereign until a federal court reversed that status.

Other Haudenosaunee nations argued that their land suits differed in crucial respects from the Cayuga’s and would carry on.

Immediately after the Supreme Court announcement, the Onondaga Nation said of their case, “While it differs from the Cayuga suit in that it does not seek ‘disruptive’ remedies, the underlying crimes and injustices are virtually identical. The historical facts that the Cayugas did everything they could, that they did not wait too long and that New York knowingly and repeatedly violated federal law and treaties were not contested by the Court of Appeals. The Onondaga will continue their suit regardless of today’s grave injustice.”

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council released a point-by-point comparison highlighting differences from the Cayuga complaint. Their negotiations also involve the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s re-licensing of the New York Power Authority’s St. Lawrence FDR Power Project.

Since Interior has taken jurisdiction over islands within the power project claimed by the Mohawks, the St. Regis council said it still had leverage in its negotiations with the New York state government. It called for the state to honor a land settlement that Gov. George Pataki and tribal leaders signed last year.

The Mohawk agreement came within a day of ratification by the New York Legislature last summer, but was blocked at the last minute by state Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno, whose son at the time held a lobbying

contract with an out-of-state Haudenosaunee tribe also seeking a land settlement.

The Oneida Indian Nation of New York said May 15 through spokesman Mark Emery, “This decision does not affect the Oneida’s case, which has additional claims not at issue in the Cayuga case. The Oneida land claim is valid and continues to move forward.” (The OIN owns Four Directions Media, publisher of Indian Country Today.)

Guest, who wrote one Supreme Court brief in the Cayuga appeal, said there was “a glimmer of hope” that the Supreme Court might limit the damage if one of these suits came before it.

He said the court might not necessarily have agreed with the 2nd Circuit ruling and might have wanted to wait for the issues to be developed further before making a ruling. (Technically, the court takes up a case by issuing a writ of certiorari, and it grants “cert” in roughly one of a hundred appeals. The denial in the Cayuga case – actually two paired cases – appeared without comment in a list of more than 240 rejected appeals.)

Guest said the issues could continue coming up to the court in different variations. But he wasn’t overly optimistic that the outcome would change. “If that’s the result they want to achieve,” he said, “they’ll find something else to hang their hat on.”

He warned that Cabranes’ dismissal of the Cayuga case could be used across the country to defeat Indian claims on a range of historic issues. He said that the Supreme Court Project of NARF and the National Congress of American Indians had already scheduled a conference call May 21 to strategize with its panel of legal advisers on dealing with an expected wave of dismissal motions.

The legal trail to dismissal of the Cayuga case began with a separate federal lawsuit between the Oneida Nation and the city of Sherrill, N.Y., in which the OIN owned several parcels of property.

The Oneidas maintained that when they reacquired land in their original reservation boundaries, they also re-established tribal sovereignty; hence, the land was no longer subject to city property taxes. Although their argument prevailed through the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court took up the case in City of Sherrill v. the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Apparently alarmed by the spread of tribal jurisdiction, the court held, by an 8 – 1 decision on March 29, 2005, that the nation could not unilaterally reassert sovereignty.

In writing that opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used three obscure legal doctrines to conclude that the OIN’s remedy for past illegal expropriation of its land would cause too much disruption to the non-Indian civilization that had grown up there. One of these doctrines was “laches,” almost invariably but inaccurately described in the press as meaning that a party “had waited too long” to assert its rights. But Ginsburg said she was not overruling two previous Supreme Court decisions allowing the Oneidas to bring their land claims suit.

Nonetheless, Cabranes seized on Sherrill to throw out the Cayuga award completely and dismiss it without referring it back to District Court. He said that Sherrill had “completely changed the legal landscape” on Indian claims. Disagreeing with Cabranes, Connecticut Federal District Court Judge Judith Hall filed a dissent saying that even the changed landscape didn’t justify his drastic revisions of old legal doctrines.

Solicitor General of the United States Paul D. Clement, the chief lawyer for the executive branch, went even further in a brief

urging the Supreme Court to overturn Cabranes. The brief, co-authored by Assistant Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge, formerly chief legal office at Interior, said that Cabranes’ analysis was “deeply flawed,” “fundamentally misguided” and marked by “serious legal errors.”

In a brief, N.Y. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer argued that Cabranes was well within the guidelines of Sherrill and that he raised no federal issues

warranting Supreme Court review. Echoing a historic argument for dispossessing Indians, he said that “subsequent landowners developed the land from an empty wilderness to the many towns, villages and improv-ements in the region, and the lands are worth incalculably more than they were when the Cayugas sold them over 200 years ago.”

Cabranes’ decision may be tainted by a possible conflict of interest. Cabranes lives in a suburb of New Haven, Conn., which falls within the aboriginal territory of the state-recognized Golden Hill Paugussett tribe, which filed a highly inflammatory series of land claims against individual land owners a decade ago and in recent years has threatened to bring even more.