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Media Alerts - Upstate Citizens for Equality v. United States of America - Second Circuit
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November 10, 2016
  Upstate Citizens for Equality v. United States of America - Second Circuit
Headline: Second Circuit Affirms District Court's Finding that Entrustment of New York Oneida Indian Nation Land to Federal Government for Tribe's Benefit and Use was Constitutional

Area of Law: Constitutional

Issue Presented: Was the entrustment of Indian land under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 permissible if neither the Indian tribe nor the government continuously held or supervised the land?

Brief Summary: The Oneida Indian Nation Tribe ("the Tribe") sought to have a portion of central New York land held in trust for the Tribe's benefit by the federal government pursuant to § 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to, among other things, allow the Tribe to continue operating its Turning Stone Casino on part of that land. In May of 2008, the Department of the Interior accepted 13,000 acres of central New York land into trust for the Tribe. Plaintiffs, local New York towns and residents, filed suit claiming that the entrustment process was unconstitutional and infringed on New York State's sovereignty. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York granted the federal government's motion for summary judgment. On the plaintiffs' appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed. The Second Circuit held that the federal government has broad authority in dealing with Indian affairs and the entrustment for the Tribe's benefit was proper even if all of the land sat within a single state and the federal supervision of the land was not continuous, and the entrustment did not violate the United States Constitution's Enclave Clause - which requires state consent for certain federal assertions of jurisdiction over state land - because the federal government does not have "exclusive" jurisdiction over the land in question.

To read the full decision, please visit:

Extended Summary: The Oneida Nation Tribe ("the Tribe") is a federally recognized Indian tribe situated in central New York. Under the 1788 Treaty of Fort Schuyler, the Tribe sold all but 300,000 acres of their land to New York. In 1794, the federal government entered into the Treaty of Canandiagua, which acknowledged the Treaty of Fort Schuyler, and guaranteed the free use and enjoyment of the reservation for the Tribe. The Tribe continued, however, to sell portions of their land leaving only 32 acres remaining by 1920.

In the 1990s, the Tribe began acquiring parcels of land that were originally party of the Tribe's reservation, eventually opening the Turning Stone Resort Casino on their land. In an earlier action by the town where the casino is located to evict the Tribe from the land for nonpayment of property taxes, the Second Circuit held that because the land was originally part of the earlier treaties, the Tribe was exempt from state property taxes. The United States Supreme Court disagreed, but suggested that the Tribe utilize § 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ("IRA"), which would allow the Tribe to reestablish sovereign authority over the territory by allowing the land to be "taken in the name of the United States in trust for the [] Tribe." 25 U.S.C. § 465. In May 2008, upon the Tribe's request, the Department of the Interior announced its decision to accept approximately 13,000 acres of the land into trust.

Plaintiffs, two New York towns, select residents, and a civic organization, challenged the Secretary of the Interior's decision in federal district court. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York granted the government's motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs' claims that the land-into-trust mechanism was unconstitutional and infringed on state sovereignty in addition to asserting the Department of the Interior did not have the authority to take lands in trust for the Tribe.

Plaintiffs argued that the Indian Commerce Clause did not permit the federal government to take action when the action would take place entirely within a single state. The Second Circuit rejected this argument, noting the exceptionally broad power of the federal government in the context of Indian affairs and, citing Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Cotton Petroleum Corp. v. New Mexico, distinguished between the Commerce Clause and the Indian Commerce Clause - finding the latter not containing an implicit "interstate" limitation.

Additionally, Plaintiffs asserted that the federal entrustment, by requiring the state to cede some of its authority to the federal and tribal governments, unconstitutionally infringed on New York's sovereign rights. The Second Circuit held that even though the federal supervision of the Tribe's land was not continuous, it did not preclude Congress from acquiring the land on behalf of the Tribe, even if New York lost some of its governmental power over the land, citing another Supreme Court decision that highlighted the broad federal power to deal with Indian affairs.

The Plaintiffs also argued that the Enclave Clause required Congress to obtain the state legislature's express consent before taking land into trust for Indians. The rarely invoked Enclave Clause ensures that "places on which the security of the entire Union may depend [are not] in any degree dependent on a particular member of it." The Second Circuit found the Enclave Clause inapplicable, however, because it requires that the federal government have "exclusive" jurisdiction for the clause to apply and states still maintain some jurisdiction over the land in trust.

Finally, the Second Circuit found the Plaintiffs assertions that the Tribe was not eligible to be the beneficiary of land entrustment based on the interpretation of "Indians" and "tribe" unpersuasive. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment that the entrustment of the Tribe's land was proper.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Circuit Judges Livingston, Chin, and Carney

Argument Date: 5/3/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 11/9/2016

Docket Numbers:
15-1688, 15-1726

Decided: Affirmed.

Case Alert Author: Scott L. Wenzel

Counsel: David Brown Vickers, for Upstate Citizens for Equality, Inc.; Cornelius D. Murray, O'Connell and Aronowitz, for Town of Vernon, Town of Verona, Abraham Acee, and Arthur Strife; J. David Gunter, United Sates Department of Justice, for the United States of America, Sally M.R. Jewell, Micahel L. Conner, and Elizabeth J. Klein.

Author of Opinion: Judge Carney

Circuit: Second Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Elyse Diamond

    Posted By: Elyse Diamond @ 11/10/2016 11:07 AM     2nd Circuit  

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