Onondaga lawsuit could be dismissed if Interior, Justice departments don’t intervene
By Mike McAndrew
New York State says the Onondaga Nation’s land claim should be dismissed because the tribe waited too long to sue.
But the Onondaga’s lawsuit is also in jeopardy because of inaction by two other parties – the U.S. Interior and Justice departments.
Two-and-a-half years after the Onondaga sued, the two federal departments – rocked by recent resignations and allegations of ethical lapses – have not notified the federal court if the United States will intervene in the case and join in the suit against New York.
Unless the United States joins, the Onondaga’s suit against New York could get dismissed as soon as next month.
That’s because the U.S. Constitution gives states immunity from lawsuits filed by Indian nations unless the United States intervenes.
New York has asked District Judge Lawrence Kahn of Albany to dismiss the case, citing its immunity, among other grounds. Lawyers are scheduled to appear Oct. 11 in Albany before Kahn. The judge is not expected to rule from the bench.
The Interior Department plans to make a recommendation on the Onondaga Nation land claim to the Justice Department within two weeks, said Shane Wolfe, Interior’s press secretary. He declined to reveal what the recommendation will be. Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames also declined to say if the United States will join the Onondaga suit.
The Onondaga lawsuit asks the court to declare that New York violated federal law when it obtained about 4,000 square miles of land from the Onondaga in a series of treaties in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
It asks the court to declare that the Onondaga continue to hold title to the land, a 40-mile-wide swath that stretches from Pennsylvania to Canada. The cities of Syracuse, Oswego, Fulton, Watertown, Cortland and Binghamton lie within the disputed territory.
The suit does not seek eviction of any property owners or any monetary damages.
If the suit against New York is dismissed, Onondaga Nation lawyer Robert “Tim” Coulter said the Onondaga will ask the court to allow the case to proceed against a handful of corporate property owners who were also named as defendants.
For about 18 years, even before it filed the suit, the Onondaga Nation has been asking the United States to take a position on its land claim, according to Coulter.
The government has intervened in similar suits against New York filed by four other Indian nations – the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca.
A top Interior Department official testified in 2005 that the agency believes New York’s acquisitions of tribal land after 1790 were null and void.
But Interior has not made a recommendation to the Justice Department in the Onondaga case.
“It’s really impossible to predict what they may do,” Coulter said. “They are aware of the urgency of it.”
He said the United States has intervened in other land claim cases “at the very last moment.”
Representatives of the Interior Department and Justice Department declined last week to explain their agencies’ delays in the Onondaga case.
In recent months, the Justice and Interior departments have been busy with other issues.
On Aug. 27, Alberto Gonzales resigned as attorney general after months of congressional inquiries into his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, questions about whether he testified truthfully before Congress and criticism of the domestic spying program.
In January, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who as the head of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division was handling the Onondaga request, resigned. A month later, the House Judiciary Committee began investigating how she came to jointly own a $1 million beach house with the chief lobbyist for an oil company that she regulated and with J. Steven Griles, the Interior Department’s No. 2 officer.
Griles, who is now married to Wooldridge, was sentenced in June to 10 months in prison for lying to Congress during its investigation of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist for many Indian nations. Abramoff and his tribal clients steered $500,000 to a business run by Griles’ girlfriend while Griles was deciding on casino permit applications and other issues they were involved in.
The Interior Department has also been busy battling an 11-year-old civil suit that alleges it mismanaged billions of dollars in Indian land trusts.
A federal court hearing is scheduled in Washington in that matter, known as the Cobell case, on Oct. 10 – the day before the Onondaga case is in court.