MANHATTAN (CN) — A split Second Circuit panel ruled against New York state on Thursday in a 30-year dispute over its land deal with the Seneca Nation that resulted in the construction of a highway through reservation land in upstate New York.
It was in 1954, in exchange for $75,000, that the Seneca people had granted New York an easement to run about 3 miles of the nearly 570-mile state thruway through the Cattaraugus Reservation, south of Buffalo. Since 1993, however, the Seneca have been fighting to invalidate that easement, citing several issues with the negotiation, including that it was represented by a state-appointed attorney and that the easement was never federally ratified.
The Seneca want a federal judge to issue a valid easement for approximately 300 acres of the Cattaraugus Reservation tribal land on which the New York State Thruway is situated. Occupying territory throughout the Finger Lakes area in central New York and in the Genesee Valley in western New York, the federally recognized Native American tribe says injunctive relief would bring continued public benefit from those Indian lands into compliance with federal law, “on terms that will in the future equitably compensate the Nation pro rata for future use of its lands.”
State officials argue meanwhile that the tribe is collaterally estopped from bringing such a request based on a 2004 ruling. They also say the lawsuit is barred by the 11th Amendment. Neither claim impressed a federal judge, and the Second Circuit affirmed 2-1 Thursday that the lawsuit can advance.
“Accordingly, the lawsuit falls under the Ex parte Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment,” U.S. Circuit Judge John Walker wrote for the majority. "Thus, neither collateral estoppel nor the Eleventh Amendment bars the Nation from proceeding in this case."
Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. called the circuit's ruling an important victory.
"Our arguments on behalf of our people deserve to be heard in court," he said in a statement this afternoon. "The thruway is a 300-acre scar on our Cattaraugus Territory that New York State inflicted on our people without proper authorization from the Department of the Interior or in compliance with the promises made to us by treaty."
Representatives for the state did not immediately respond to request for comment.
U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Sullivan argued in dissent that the 11th Amendment bars the Seneca Nation's lawsuit, as it seeks only retrospective relief against the state.
“Although the Nation has styled its requests for relief as prospective, each request seeks to redress a past wrong — the State’s purported failure to comply with the Non-Intercourse Act when it purchased from the Nation an easement permitting it to extend a portion of the New York State Thruway over tribal land in 1954,” the Trump-appointed Sullivan wrote.
“To remedy this injury, the Nation seeks an injunction ordering the State to purchase the easement anew. But we cannot order the State to ‘use its own resources’ to remedy a historical wrong.”
Sullivan and Walker, who is a Bush appointee, were joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Amalya Kearse, a Carter appointee.
The first decade of litigation ended with the Second Circuit ruling in 2004 that New York state has sovereign immunity from the tribe's claims.
Taking another tack, the Seneca sued again in 2018 — this time naming various state officials, including the governor, the state attorney general and the transportation commissioner, as defendants.
According to the most recent data, the New York State Thruway has collected over $77 million in tolls in September 2022.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.