In a fairly stunning ruling with far-reaching significance for Indian land claims in the Northeast, a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out the Cayuga tribe’s lawsuit against New York State and local landowners over possession of 64,000 upstate acres, including the $248 million that a trial court judge had earlier determined was owed to the tribe in damages (see Jun. 24-25, 2002). The majority in the 2-1 opinion, led by Judge Jose Cabranes, relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinion in City of Sherrill v. Oneida, which disallowed a tribe’s efforts to assert reservation sovereignty over tracts of land it had added piecemeal through purchase to its previous holdings. According to the majority opinion, the Sherrill ruling revitalizes the equitable defense of laches, or undue delay, which many observers had assumed was unavailable to defendants in the Indian land claim suits. In a dissent, Judge Janet Hall agreed that ejectment of current homeowners was now barred by the Supreme Court’s evolving jurisprudence but argued that claims for cash damages should be allowed to go forward.
Should the ruling be upheld following the inevitable petitions for en banc reconsideration, Supreme Court certiorari, etc., it could spell doom for most and perhaps all efforts to revive long-defunct Indian land claims, which have for decades now inflicted injustice and disruption on innocent landowners and others. For our extensive coverage of the issue, see Jun. 27 (Shinnecocks’ Hamptons suit) and many links from there. (Diana Louise Carter, “Judges throw out Cayugas’ land claim”, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Jun. 29; Scott Rapp, “Judges To Indians: You’re Too Late To Reclaim Land”, Syracuse Post-Standard, Jun. 29; Jim Adams, “Second Circuit throws out New York state land claim”, Indian Country Today, Jun. 28; William Kates, “Appeals Court Tosses $248M Award to Tribe”, AP/Washington Post, Jun. 28). More: New York Law Journal (& welcome Howard Bashman readers). Update Apr. 14, 2006: U.S. Justice Department petitions for certiorari.