New Jersey v. New York

LOCATION: National Endowment for the Arts

DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

CITATION: 523 US 767 (1998)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1998
DECIDED: May 26, 1998

Daniel Smirlock - Argued the cause for the defendant
Jeffrey P. Minear - Argued the cause for the United States, amicus curiae
Joseph L. Yannotti - Argued the cause for the plaintiff

Facts of the case

Under an 1834 compact between New York and New Jersey, Ellis Island was deemed part of New York. It was later determined, by the Supreme Court, that New Jersey would have sovereign rights over all submerged lands on its side of the Hudson River. During the time Ellis Island was used to receive immigrants, the Federal Government filled around the island adding some 24.5 acres to its original size over 42 years. When immigration was diverted from Ellis Island in 1954, New York and New Jersey asserted rival sovereignty claims over the Island's filled portions. New Jersey finally invoked the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction to solve the matter once and for all time.


Are the filled portions on Jersey's Side of Ellis Island under the sovereign authority of the State of New York or the State of New Jersey?

Media for New Jersey v. New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1998 in New Jersey v. New York

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 120 Original, New Jersey v. New York.

Mr. Yannotti.

Joseph L. Yannotti:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In his final report the Special Master concluded that New York's jurisdiction on Ellis Island was limited to the island as it existed in April 1834, and New Jersey is sovereign over the portions of the island created by artificial filling of submerged lands in the years after 1834.

Although we take issue with the amount of territory allocated to New York and with the recommended boundary line of the Special Master, we would first like to offer the Court our reasons why we believe the Special Master's principal conclusion is legally sound and amply supported by the record.

First, the Special Master correctly interpreted the 1834 Compact between the States which fixed the territorial limits and jurisdiction of New Jersey and New York along their common boundary.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

My only observation about that, and it helps your case, I think, I was a little puzzled that the Special Master did not pay more of a... put more weight on the Holmes' opinion in Central--

Joseph L. Yannotti:

Well, we certainly did place a great deal of weight on the Holmes' opinion and we do think--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

--The Special Master didn't seem to think... it seems to me it... on the sovereignty issue that if New York is right we have to overrule that.

Joseph L. Yannotti:

--Well, they certainly did make that argument below before the Special Master.

Some of the amici have made that point.

I did not see a direct attack on the Holmes' opinion or request to see it overruled in the Exceptions, so I'm not sure that's an issue--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

We would have to overrule it were New York to have sovereignty, would we not?

Joseph L. Yannotti:

--Yes, I think so, Your Honor.

I think that case squarely decides the question of sovereignty over the submerged lands.

What the Court rejected in that case was an argument that all New Jersey had under the Compact was a right of property under these submerged lands.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Now, as to the meaning of the jurisdiction that remains, Holmes' opinion is not quite clear, and I think that probably needs further elaboration.

Joseph L. Yannotti:

Under Article III?

Anthony M. Kennedy:


Joseph L. Yannotti:

Yes, well--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, or whether there is a difference in Article III jurisdiction or Article II jurisdiction is not clear from Central Railroad.

Joseph L. Yannotti:

--Well, Justice... Justice Holmes indicated in the Central Railroad case that under Article II, New York had retained its present jurisdiction of and over Ellis Island, which he interpreted to mean was the States intended to preserve the status quo ante, and the status quo that existed in 1834 was a situation where Ellis Island was on the New Jersey side of the boundary, it was a 2-3/4 acres of fast land to mean high water, it was owned by the Federal Government, who had acquired it in 1808 from the State of New York, and it was utilized as a military fort.

New York, in fact, had ceded jurisdiction to the Federal Government in those conveyances, and retained only the right to serve civil and criminal process, so that was the jurisdiction that was retained by the State of New York.

That was the... what we contend was the present jurisdiction in 1834 when the agreement was made, and moreover, our view is that the States recognized that the island then in existence which was, as I said, 2-3/4 acres, was the Ellis Island that was being addressed by the terms of that Compact, so I do--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Mr. Yannotti, at least as to the land that was once submerged and has now been filled in, there was a significant argument made that Holmes was wrong, at least to the extent that he defined exclusive rights of property to mean sovereignty.

Joseph L. Yannotti:

--Well, I respectfully argue that Holmes was not wrong, and that he reached the correct conclusion.

In fact, what he did in that opinion for the... for a unanimous Court was to base his judgment upon the prior decision of the New York Court of Appeals of 1870, which had concluded essentially that the territorial line was the principal and dominant purpose of this agreement, that the State of New Jersey was sovereign on its side of the boundaries--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Well, that part I understand, the equation of boundary with sovereignty.

Joseph L. Yannotti:


Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But Holmes also said something about exclusive right of property.