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Circuit Court Bars Cayuga Land Suit

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    Circuit Court Bars Cayuga Land Suit

    (javascript:PrintWindow();) Posted: July 01, 2005 by: _Jim Adams_
    ( / Indian Country Today
    Appeal likely; other suits uncertain

    NEW YORK - As shock wears off from the Circuit Court dismissal of the Cayuga
    land suit, about the only certainty is that it will be appealed.

    The 2 - 1 ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals June 28 relied on
    the Supreme Court's recent City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y.
    decision to throw out 25 years of litigation, a jury trial verdict and a
    District Court judge's award of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in favor of
    the Cayugas.

    But the immediate reaction of Indian law practitioners was that the decision
    by Circuit Court Judge Jose Cabranes went far beyond the purport of an
    already harmful Supreme Court ruling. A strong dissent from District Judge Janet
    C. Hull, a member of the three-judge panel, raised major objections that are
    very likely to be presented to the 2nd Circuit sitting en banc (that is, with
    its full membership hearing the appeal).

    The last resort would be an appeal to the Supreme Court in the hopes that it
    would grant a hard-to-get writ of certiorari to clarify what might have been
    unintended consequences of the March 29 Sherrill ruling. The process could
    add years of uncertainty to the settlement of a series of New York state land

    The case of one tribe, the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk, was within one or
    two days of final resolution earlier this month. Its tribal council invoked
    the threat of continued court struggle as leverage to keep alive a negotiated
    settlement which would double the size of its northern New York reservation.

    Appealing to Gov. George Pataki to honor the settlement, St. Regis Tribal
    Chief James W. Ransom said the Cabranes decision ''can be appealed and will
    continue to be litigated in the courts for several more years, thereby exposing
    all concerned parties to more uncertainty and exorbitant legal costs.''

    The deal, approved by all of the Akwesasne communities and their neighbors,
    was days away from final passage in the state Legislature in late June when
    it was stalled in the state Senate by lobbying from out-of-state tribes
    looking to enter the potentially lucrative Catskills casino market.

    The Cayuga Indian Nation began its suit in 1980 to regain 64,015 acres
    around the northern shores of Cayuga Lake. U.S. District Court Judge Neil P.
    McCurn ruled in 1990 that the land was illegally conveyed to New York state in
    1795 and 1807. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma joined the suit the next
    year. Both tribes reached tentative settlements with the state last year,
    accepting a $100 million cut in the court award in return for casino compacts in the
    Catskills. But the Cayuga Nation signer, Clint Halftown, repudiated it
    shortly after; and the nation has since been embroiled in a leadership conflict.

    A Cayuga Nation enterprise, LakeSide Trading, currently operates two gas
    stations and small Class II casinos near Cayuga Lake.

    The fate of three or more tribal casinos in the Catskill Mountains resort
    area, a day trip from New York City, is one of the lesser uncertainties created
    by the Cabranes decision - itself a result of the turmoil following the
    Sherrill case. The Circuit Court decision, basically saying the Cayugas waited
    too long to bring their complaint, could wipe out the quest of all tribes for
    long-deferred justice.

    ''This is huge,'' said Douglas Luckerman, a Massachusetts-based lawyer
    specializing in tribal sovereignty cases. ''It's a paradigm shift.''

    Luckerman said the Cabranes decision appeared to go far beyond the Sherrill
    opinion by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Supreme Court left
    ''undisturbed'' its original rulings allowing the Oneida land claims. But
    Cabranes used Ginsburg's discussion of the ''laches doctrine'' to reverse the
    entire Cayuga action.

    According to ''Black's Law Dictionary,'' laches means that the long passage
    of time can prevent a party from bringing a suit for damages, if it puts the
    defendant at a disadvantage.

    Wrote Cabranes, ''In another case raising land claims stemming from
    late-eighteenth century treaties between Indian tribes and the State of New York, the
    Supreme Court recently ruled that equitable doctrines - such as laches,
    acquiescence and impossibility - can be applied to Indian land claims in
    appropriate circumstances. [citing to Sherrill]

    ''Based on Sherrill, we conclude that the possessory land claim alleged here
    is the type of claim to which a laches defense can be applied.''

    Cabranes acknowledged that he made a series of stretches in applying
    Sherrill, which he said ''dramatically altered the legal landscape.''

    He wrote, ''One of the few incontestable propositions about this unusually
    complex and confusing area of law is that doctrines and categorizations
    applicable in other areas do not translate neatly to these claims.'' A major
    source of the present confusion is the distinction between decisions based on
    established legal principles and decision in equity, based on the judge's sense
    of a just outcome. Sherrill was an equity case, but Cabranes imported
    Ginsburg's ''equitable doctrines'' into a suit based on law.

    He relied on the origin of the Cayuga's complaint as an ''ejectment''
    action, seeking to evict the people settled on their 64,015-acre ''original
    reservation.'' Although District Court Judge Neil P. McCurn ruled out that remedy in
    1999, making it a monetary case, Cabranes said the original intent was
    ''disruptive'' and hence met Ginsburg's criteria for using the equitable defense.

    In a further stretch, he applied laches to the U.S. government, which had
    joined the Cayugas as a plaintiff in 1992. Even though the 2nd Circuit had
    previously held that laches did not apply to suits brought by the federal
    government, Cabranes said Sherrill had ''effectively overruled'' that decision.

    Judge Hull's closely reasoned dissent, although couched in legal terms, gave
    Cabranes a stern scolding. The ''complexity'' of this area, she wrote, ''is
    best addressed by relying on relevant precedent and established principles.''

    Although her 17 pages of argument suggest that the case is not yet closed,
    opponents of the tribes were jubilant. ''BREAK OUT THE CHAMPAGNE!!!'' said
    Dick Tallcot, chairman of the Cayuga-Seneca Upstate Citizens for Equality,
    representing residents of the Cayuga land claim area.

    Pataki joined the celebration. He called the Cabranes decision ''a
    tremendous victory for the property owners and taxpayers in central New York.

    ''For years, we've been fighting to protect the interests of homeowners and
    businesses in Cayuga and Seneca counties, and we're pleased that the court
    has ruled in our favor,'' he said in a prepared statement. ''We will continue
    to take whatever steps are necessary to protect New Yorkers - from Grand
    Island to Long Island - as we move forward to resolve any remaining land claims
    within the state.''
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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