The U.S. Supreme Court declined review in a case brought by the Shinnecock
Indian Nation to reclaim alleged tribal land in Southampton, New York.
The High Court’s
decision leaves in place the decision of a lower court, which ruled against
the tribe in the latest of a series of suits that have been ongoing for
over a decade.
The appeals case of
Shinnecock Indian Nation v. United States (2015 WL 1529231) was decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in
April 2015. In their appeal to the High Court, the Shinnecock Indian Nation
contested the final judgment of the Second Circuit dismissing the tribe’s
latest action for lack of jurisdiction.
In October, the Circuit Court upheld a 2006 decision finding that the Shinnecock
land claim was barred by the equitable doctrines of laches. The doctrine
prevents parties from suing after such an extended period that the delay
causes prejudice to the defendant.
In its March 25th petition for writ of certiorari, Shinnecock claimed the
lower court improperly applied the laches doctrine is its case, as well
as other tribal cases that unfairly banned Indian nations from seeking
damages for loss of tribal lands. The tribe argued that the Court had
a long history of denying reclamation claims from Native American tribes,
and cited the Court’s 2005 ruling in
Cayuga Indian Nation v. Pataki as proof that the court has previously unfairly ruled against tribal suits
based on the laches argument.
In their appeal, the tribe argued that the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in
Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., conflicted with the Second Circuit’s decision in
Cayuga. The Supreme Court found that laches could not be applied to bar equitable
relief in issues where Congress had established a statute of limitations.
In their original Second Circuit suit, the tribe alleged that they received
the rights to the Southampton land as part of a lease agreement with the
Trustees of the Freeholders in 1703. The Freeholders were a Southampton
governing body that the tribe contends granted their nation thousand-year
rights over thousands of acres of land in the Long Island area. Shinnecock
alleges that the lease agreement was canceled in 1859 when the state Legislature
authorized the transfer of land from the tribe to the Southampton’s
Trustees of the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Lands and Marshes.
According to the Shinnecock petition, only a minority of the tribe had
agreed to the transfer of land, and that a fraud lawsuit against the town
immediately following the transfer claimed that the minority of tribe
members that signed the agreement were under duress. The 1859 suit never
went to trial, and in 1861, the land was auctioned off and was developed
as Shinnecock Hills.
In a 2005 lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York, the tribe
alleges that the state’s authorization of the 1859 land transfer
violated the 1834 version of the Indian Nonintercourse Act, which banned
Native American land transfer agreements, except those allowed under a
Constitutional Treaty. The tribe was seeking more than $1.1 billion in
monetary damages from the U.S. government for alleged wrongdoing by Suffolk
County, the Town of Southampton, the Long Island Railroad, and various
other businesses and schools that now occupy the land. As part of their
suit, the Shinnecock Nation demanded that all current residents of the
area be ejected.
The case before the Supreme Court was
Shinnecock Indian Nation v. State of New York et al., (case number 15-1215) and can be viewed
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