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updated 6/29/2004 5:30:50 PM ET 2004-06-29T21:30:50

The Supreme Court said Monday it would clarify when governments can tax Indian property.
The tiny city of Sherrill, N.Y., and the state of New York had asked justices to review a lower court’s decision barring the taxation of a textile plant and a gas station-convenience store owned by the Oneida Indian Nation.

The Bush administration urged the court to stay out of the extended fight between the Oneidas and the government over land. Justices announced that they would hear arguments in the case, likely in the fall.

‘Only a tiny fraction’
The Oneida Indians of New York, Wisconsin and Ontario have been in a long-running lawsuit against New York state for the return of 250,000 acres the state purchased from the tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Supreme Court case involves “only a tiny fraction” of the disputed land, Solicitor General Theodore Olson told justices in a filing. He said the Oneida Indians reacquired some properties within the boundaries of the reservation that was recognized by the U.S. government in a 1794 treaty.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Indian-owned land cannot be taxed by the state or local government.

Ira Sacks, the attorney for Sherrill, told the court that the New York Oneidas ceased to exist as a tribe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and lost the right to have untaxable “Indian country.”

Sacks said if the appeal court decision stands “the tax base and viability of cities such as the city of Sherrill — across New York and elsewhere — will be imperiled.” He said Sherrill is New York’s smallest city, covering one and a half square miles with about 3,000 residents.
The case is Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 03-855.

Black Seminoles case
Also Monday, Oklahoma black Seminoles lost a Supreme Court appeal over their claim that they’ve been cheated out of social service benefits because of their African ancestry.
The court refused without comment to consider reinstating their lawsuit against the federal government.

A judge had ruled that their lawsuit could not move ahead unless the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma was part of it. But that’s not possible because the tribe’s sovereign status protects it from federal lawsuits.

The lawyer for the black Seminoles, members of two of 14 bands within the tribe, said that the lawsuit was their only option to get a share of benefits that are being enjoyed by other Seminoles.

At issue is $56 million the tribe received from the federal government in 1990 as compensation for the 1823 taking of Seminole lands in Florida. The money funds social service programs, but those are generally reserved for Seminoles descended from a member of the tribe as it existed in Florida in 1823.

Black Seminoles were not recognized as tribal members until an 1866 treaty. They are descendants of escaped slaves who began living among the tribe in Florida.

The Bush administration had urged the court to reject the appeal. The federal government’s task is releasing money, not deciding who gets it, government lawyers said.

The case is Davis v. United States of America, 03-1313.

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