ALBANY, N.Y., Oct. 18 (Reuters) - In a decision that could
have implications for Native American tribes nationwide, the
U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal by the
Oneida Indian Nation seeking compensation for 250,000 acres of
former tribal lands illegally purchased by New York in the 18th
and 19th centuries.
The suit, first filed in 1974, alleged New York violated
federal law when it purchased the land without Congressional
approval. The suit claims the land, bought in central New York
between 1795 and 1846, is now worth more than $500 million.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit tossed out
the case last August, ruling that while the purchase of the
land was illegal, granting the nation's claims would be too
disruptive to the state, local governments and the current
owners of the land in question.
"This is pretty much a death knell for other New York
tribes' land claims," said Matthew Fletcher, a professor at
Michigan State University Law School who filed an amicus brief
on behalf of the Oneida nation.
In its ruling, the Second Circuit invoked so-called
equitable defenses, which may be used in unusual circumstances
where the court believes that it would be unconscionable for a
party to assert its rights. The success of such defenses by the
government in tribal land claims was rare until a landmark 2005
Supreme Court case, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation,
in which the Court ruled the nation could not extend its
immunity from taxation to lands that it repurchased only
"The (equitable) defense is properly applied to bar any
ancient land claims that are disruptive of significant and
justified societal expectations that have arisen as a result of
a lapse of time during which the plaintiffs did not seek
relief," the Court wrote in Sherrill.
TWO JUSTICES DISSENT
In the current case, the Second Circuit relied on Sherrill
in holding that the amount of time that had passed since the
land was purchased -- and the number of owners in the
intervening years -- could prevent the state from preparing an
Because the Oneidas' claim was brought under a 1790 federal
law, the ruling directly affects only tribes in states that
existed at that time. But several experts said the decision
lends legitimacy to the use of equitable defenses by the
government in tribal land claims generally.
"Since Sherrill, there has been a lot of questioning of how
to apply these defenses to other Indian land claims. This
decision gives equitable defenses yet another layer of validity
under the law," said Sarah Krakoff, a professor at Colorado
University Law School and the former director of its American
Indian Law Clinic.
Seth Waxman, the attorney for the Oneida Nation, said the
Second Circuit was "grievously wrong" in applying equitable
defenses and "overread" the Sherrill decision.
"The Supreme Court held that damage claims for unlawful
misappropriation were not impacted at all by Sherrill, and I
think that's what the Court would have held" in this case,
Waxman said, referring to a part of the Sherrill decision that
said tribes could still seek damages, despite the validity of
the equitable defenses.
He also noted that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who concurred
with the Sherrill decision when she was on the Second Circuit,
took the unusual step of dissenting from the Court's decision
not to hear the case, for which it gave no explanation. Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg also indicated she would have heard the
POSSIBLE CLAIMS AGAINST FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
In a statement, the Oneida nation said the Court's
rejection of the case would not affect its litigation strategy
moving forward, and that it would continue its practice of
repurchasing former tribal lands and placing them in a trust.
"The Oneida Nation will continue the course of transferring
its lands into trust while remaining open to discussing a
resolution with any party that wishes to participate," Oneida
spokesman Mark Emery said in a statement.
Tribes may yet benefit from the ruling, Matthew Fletcher
said, because it could open the door to claims against the
federal government for failing to prosecute states for the
illegal land purchases.
"If the statute of limitations expires, the U.S. is
potentially liable because they never enforced the statutes,"
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not return a request
The New York Attorney General's office declined to comment
on Monday's decision.
The case is Oneida Indian Nation v. New York, et al, United
States Supreme Court No. 10-1420.
For New York: Assistant Solicitor General Denise Hartman.
For Oneida Indian Nation: Seth Waxman of Wilmer-Hale in
(Reporting by Dan Wiessner)
Follow us on Twitter: @ReutersLegal
(An earlier version of this story identified Matthew
Fletcher's affiliation as the University of Michigan Law
School. He is at Michigan State University Law School.)