June 28, 2005

Appeals court reverses Indian land claim ruling

By Linda Prospero

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State will not have to pay$248 million in land claims to the Cayuga Indian Nation of NewYork and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, a U.S. AppealsCourt said on Tuesday, reversing an earlier decision by afederal district court.

Tuesday's decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for theSecond Circuit dismissed the lower court's ruling by a 2-1decision and could have broad implications for unsettled claimsby other Indian tribes.

Still pending are challenges by Indian nations includingthe Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onandagas and the Shinnecocks,some of whom are seeking the land and tax-exempt status as aprecursor to operating lucrative casinos.

At stake was an approximately 25-year-old claim involving64,015 acres of land in central New York State that the Cayugasof New York and the Seneca-Cayuga Indians of Oklahoma arguedwas taken from them over 200 years ago.

"It's a radical decision which substantially changes thelaw in this area of Indian land claims and would effectivelyend all Indian land claims based upon historic takings oflands. It's a substantial departure and we think it'sinconsistent with the (U.S.) Supreme Court's dictates," saidMartin Gold, a lawyer for the Cayuga Indians of New York.

In Tuesday's decision favoring the state, the court cited aruling this year by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involvingthe town of Sherrill in New York State and the Oneida Indians.In that case, the court said that the Oneidas could not takeback sovereignty on lands due to a statute of limitations.

"This long lapse of time, during which the Oneidas did notseek to revive their sovereign control through equitable reliefin court, and the attendant dramatic changes in the characterof the properties, preclude (the tribe) from gaining thedisruptive remedy it now seeks," the ruling said.

In Tuesday's ruling, the court said that the case hadparallels to the Oneida claim. "What concerned the court is thedisruptive nature of the claim," the ruling said.

The lower court's ruling awarding $247 million to the twotribes was made before the U.S. Supreme Court decision, a pointthat was cited in Tuesday's ruling.

Gold said that the Indians could ask the Court of Appealsto hear the case "en banc," a procedure sometimes used inexceptionally important cases where all 13 judges of the courtreview the findings of the three judges who ruled on the case.However, no decision has been made yet on whether to ask forthe procedure, he said.

"This has been a long war. The case started in 1980 andthis is one battle in the war. The war is by no means over,"Gold said.

Tuesday's ruling was precedent-setting, particularly inlight of other Indian tribes that have unsettled land claims inNew York, said Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for theoffice of New York State's Attorney General.

"For years, we've been fighting to protect the interests ofhomeowners and businesses in Cayuga and Seneca counties, andwe're pleased that the Court has ruled in our favor," Gov.George Pataki said in a news release.