City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York

PETITIONER: City of Sherrill, New York
RESPONDENT: Oneida Indian Nation of New York, et al.
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 03-855
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 197 (2005)
GRANTED: Jun 28, 2004
ARGUED: Jan 11, 2005
DECIDED: Mar 29, 2005

Caitlin J. Halligan - argued the cause for Petitioner
Ira S. Sacks - argued the cause for Petitioner
Michael R. Smith - argued the cause for Respondents
Malcolm L. Stewart - argued the cause for Respondents, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

In the late 18th century, Congress set aside most of the tribal land of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York as a reservation. The tribe later sold off much of the reservation. In the 1990s members of the tribe began to buy back pieces of the land. The tribe said the reacquired land was part of a reservation and therefore exempt from state and municipal taxes. The City of Sherrill - which encompassed some of the tribe's property - argued the land was not tax-exempt. The Oneidas sued Sherrill in federal district court and alleged the land was recognized by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua as part of their historic reservation. The Oneidas also pointed to the 1790 Non- Intercourse Act that required federal consent for Indian land to lose its reservation status. Sherrill argued the land lost its reservation status after leaving the Oneidas' ownership originally. The district court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the Oneidas.


Were land parcels once owned by the Oneida Nation, sold in 1807 but repurchased in the 1990s by the Nation's descedant tribe, part of an Indian Reservation and thus exempt from local taxes?

Media for City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 2005 in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 29, 2005 in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in number 03-855, the City of Sherrill v. the Oneida Nation will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns properties in the City of Sherrill, New York, purchased in open market transactions by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, in 1997 and 1998.

On the properties so purchased the Tribe operates a gasoline station, a Convenient Store and a textile factory, contained within the 300,000 acre area that the United States had reserved for the Oneidas at the end of the 18th century.

The recently acquired properties were last possessed by the Oneidas as a Tribal entity in 1805.

Governance of the entire area for two centuries has been provided by New York and its County and Municipal units, and for generations, the parcels of land in question have been subject to state and local taxation.

In a 1985 decision, this Court held that the Oneidas stated a Tribal claim for damages against the County of Oneida for wrongful possessions of lands.

The Oneidas conveyed to New York in 1795, in violation of federal law.

In the instant action, the Tribe resists the payment of property taxes to Sherrill.

Current acquisition of fee titles to discrete parcels of historic reservation land, the Tribe maintains revives the Oneida’s ancient sovereignty piecemeal over each parcel.

Consequently the Tribe urges, regulatory authority over the newly purchased properties has reverted to the Tribe and no longer resides in the City of Sherrill.

The Tribe prevailed in the courts below the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the parcels of land acquired by the Tribe in the 1990s qualify as Indian Country, immune from state and local taxation.

We reverse that judgment.

Our 1985 decision recognized that the Oneidas could maintain a federal common law claim for damages, for ancient wrongdoing in which both national and state governments were complicit.

Today, we decline to project redress for the Tribe into the present and future, thereby disrupting the governance of central New York's counties and towns.

The Oneidas long ago relinquish the reigns of government and cannot regain them through open-market purchases from current titleholders.

This Court has several times recalled the historic wisdom in the value of repose, the wrongs of which the Tribe here complains occurred during the early years of the republic yet not until the 1970s, to the Oneidas sued local governments to regain possession of their aboriginal lands and not until the 1990s, to the Tribe acquired the properties in question and demand their exemption from local taxation.

Our decision takes into account these salient factors, the long lapse of time during which the Oneidas did not seek to revive their sovereign control and divest New York’s to equitable relief in court, the attendant dramatic changes through development in the value of the properties and the distinctly non-Indian character of the area and its population today.

These considerations combine to bar the Tribe from gaining the disruptive remedy it now seeks.

That remedy would yield a checkerboard of tribal and state jurisdiction created unilaterally at the Tribe’s behest.

The alternating town and tribal control would significantly confound local governance and would adversely affect landowners neighboring the tribal patches.

Recognizing these practical concerns Congress has provided a mechanism for the acquisition of lands for tribal communities, one that takes account of the interest of others with stakes in the areas, governance and well being.

That mechanism set out in 25 U.S.C. Section 465, provides the proper avenue for the Tribe to reestablish sovereign authority over territory, last held by the Oneidas 200 years ago.

In sum, the question of damages for the Tribe’s ancient dispossession is not at issue in this case and we do not disturb our 1985 decision.

But given the extraordinary passage of time the Oneidas long delay in seeking equitable relief in court against New York or its local units, and developments in the City of Sherrill’s spanning several generations, we reject the piecemeal shift in governance, this suit seeks unilaterally to initiate.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.