U.S. Supreme Court hears case on existence of Oneida Reservation

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Feb. 23 from the attorneys for Madison and Oneida counties and the Oneida Indian Nation on whether the counties can foreclose on nation land.

The two questions the Court has agreed to hear are:

• Does the tribe’s sovereign immunity prevent the counties from seizing the Oneidas’ land when they don’t pay property taxes?

• Does the Oneida Indian reservation still exist, or was it disbanded in an 1838 treaty?

The Oneida Nation won the case in April at the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The three-judge panel ruled that although the Oneidas owed property taxes, the counties could not foreclose to recover those taxes because the nation is sovereign and enjoys the protection of sovereign immunity from the lawsuit by the counties.

The appearance marks the fourth time the Oneida Nation has been before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in 1974, and in 1985, that the Oneidas could pursue a land claim to 250,000 acres in upstate New York. That claim has not been settled. And in 2005, the Court ruled against the Oneida Nation and stated that the tribe could not claim sovereignty over land it purchased in the city of Sherrill New York and had to pay property taxes.

A week after the 2005 Court decision, the Oneida Nation asked the federal government to take into trust more than 17,000 acres the nation had purchased within the two counties. In 2008, the Department of Interior agreed to take about 13,000 acres into trust, which will stop the counties from being able to tax the lands.

The decision to take those lands into trust is being challenged by New York state and local governments in federal court.

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