Supreme Court turns back challenge to 2008 land trust decision

Published May 17, 2017 at 4:00pm

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal by a group of plaintiffs challenging the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 2008 decision to take land into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.

Without comment, the high court denied a petition from the Central New York Fair Business Association, Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and other plaintiffs in a challenge to a New York federal judge’s March 2015 ruling that Interior had reasonably decided to take thousands of acres in Oneida and Madison counties, including the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona and the Oneidas’ 32 acres of reservation land in Madison County, into trust for the Oneidas. The court’s decision upholds the lower court victory in favor of the federal government’s authority to place 13,004 acres into trust, where it is exempt from state and local laws and taxes.

The land was placed in trust by Interior following the 2013 agreement reached by the state, Oneidas, and Oneida and Madison counties that settled trust land and tax issues. Overall, the Oneidas own more than 17,000 acres in the two counties.

A petition filed by Upstate Citizens for Equality raises more questions about the nation’s land-into-trust application and is also pending before the nation’s highest court. The dispute goes back to the Supreme Court’s Sherrill decision in 2005. By a vote of 8-1, the justices held that ancestral land reacquired by the nation was not sovereign and, as a result, was taxable and subject to governmental controls like zoning and use regulations. However, the justices suggested the tribe consider placing its reacquired lands in federal trust.

The Oneidas responded to the Sherrill decision about a week later by filing a land-into-trust application for government, economic development and other properties — the avenue that was noted in the ruling.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs finalized the record of decision covering trust land in May 2008. The action set aside 8,751 acres in Oneida County and 4,253 acres in Madison County.

Lawsuits were then filed by Oneida and Madison counties, and the state, and several non-governmental entities and individuals challenging the decision and seeking to overturn it. Among the private organizations were the Central New York Fair Business Association, Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and Upstate Citizens for Equality.

As part of the 2013 state-brokered agreement, the state and counties dropped their lawsuits challenging Interior’s decision to take the 13,004 acres into trust for the nation. However, not all of the individuals and citizens groups contesting the decision ended their opposition as a result of the settlement.

The Central New York Fair Business Association and other plaintiffs, who raised general constitutional questions about the application, lost their challenge before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Some parties claimed that it was simply not legal for there to be any trust land for any purpose in New York state.

The Upstate Citizens for Equality plaintiffs, who are raising similar constitutional questions, lost their 2nd Circuit case too. But its petition to the Supreme Court for a review of the lower court ruling 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.