Top NY Court Won’t Weigh in on Tribe Leadership Fight

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – New York’s highest court ruled Tuesday that it lacks jurisdiction to resolve the Cayuga Nation’s long-running internal tribal leadership dispute.

In a 4-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals found that it cannot take up the claims of two factions fighting to be the governing body for the Seneca Falls-based tribe.

“Because tribes have a fundamental, ‘bedrock’ right to self-govern, internal tribal leadership disputes are, as a general rule, not cognizable in federal or state court,” Judge Paul Feinman wrote in the majority’s 21-page opinion granting a motion to dismiss.

Friction among the Cayuga Nation’s government arose in 2004 when its Nation Council split into two competing factions vying for leadership of the tribe: the Cayuga Nation Council, led by Clint Halftown, and the Unity Council, led by William Jacobs and Samuel Campbell.

The Cayuga Nation Council and Halftown have been recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as the Cayuga’s governing body for purposes of federal funding and other interactions between the tribe and the federal government.

In 2014, the Unity Council seized the tribe’s offices and security center, as well as a Cayuga-owned cannery, gas station and convenience store, and ice cream business in Seneca Falls, taking control of the operation of those properties and businesses.

At the time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs declined to make a more formal recognition decision and urged the Cayuga Nation to resolve the leadership dispute internally.

In 2016, both factions submitted competing requests for federal funding to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including funding for the seized offices. After the agency declined to negotiate a resolution between the two parties, the regional director asked them to submit material supporting their respective claims to legitimate authority.

Unity Council attorney Margaret Murphy of Hamburg and Nation Council attorney David DeBruin of Washington, D.C., argued before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, last month.

Judge Feinman wrote that the tribe’s “fundamental and exclusive right to sovereignty over its internal customs, traditions, and processes for selecting its government is paramount to today’s decision.”

“There is no federal or state precedent that would permit the Halftown Council to use a determination regarding federal funding as a sword against its competing leadership faction in order to have New York courts end a persistent fifteen-year-old internal dispute regarding tribal governance which is implicated by the claims presented here,” the majority opinion states.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judges Jenny Rivera and Leslie Stein joined Feinman’s opinion.

Judges Michael Garcia and Rowan Wilson dissented in two separate opinions.

Garcia found the majority’s dismissal of the tribe’s claims unfairly robs it of its day in court.

“At minimum, further factual development would clarify whether any (or all) of the Nation’s claims may be resolved without interference in internal tribal affairs,” Garcia wrote in his 10-page dissenting opinion. (Parentheses in original.)

He added that the majority failed “to grapple with the nuances of the asserted claims and, particularly at this early stage, needlessly denies the Nation any opportunity to ensure transparency and accountability with respect to its valuable commercial property.”

Wilson similarly found that the majority’s dismissal “slams the courthouse door in the face of the Cayuga Nation, even though the tribe has sought to avail itself of the state courts, even though there is no other forum to which it can turn, and even though the decision is contrary to the laws of the United States and of New York.”

“Despite the cursed history that haunts all precedents concerning the legal fate of Native Americans, we are left to apply the statutes as they have come to us,” Wilson wrote. “To deny a tribe the ability to vindicate its rights in court when the United States and New York have expressly granted it perpetuates the terrible legacy of American Indian policy under the thin veil of quasi-sovereignty.”

Judge Eugene Fahey took no part in the court’s decision.

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