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Town of Verona v. Jewell

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 26, 2015

SALLY M. R. JEWELL, [1] in her official capacity as United States Secretary of the Interior; UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, Defendants.


LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.


Plaintiffs the Town of Verona, the Town of Vernon, Abraham Acee, and Arthur Strife (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), commenced this action to challenge a May 20, 2008, Record of Decision issued by the Department of the Interior ("DOI") acquiring over 13, 000 acres of land in Central New York into trust for the benefit of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York ("OIN" or the "Nation"). Dkt. No. 1 ("Complaint") ¶ 1. Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion for summary judgment and Defendants' Cross-Motion for summary judgment. Dkt. Nos. 64 ("Motion"); 65 ("Cross-Motion"). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is granted and Plaintiffs' Motion is denied.


A. Legal Framework

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ("IRA"), 25 U.S.C.§ 461 et seq., was the centerpiece of New Deal Indian policy, which sought to enable tribes "to interact with and adapt to modern society as a governmental unit, " and repudiated an era in which federal Indian policy had encouraged cultural assimilation. F. Cohen, Handbook of Indian Law § 1.05, at 81 (Newton ed. 2012). The IRA ended allotment, see General Allotment Act of 1887 ("GAA"), 24 Stat. 388, where tribal lands had been broken up and distributed to individual Indians, and instead "facilitat[ed] tribes' acquisition of additional acreage and repurchase of former tribal domains, " Handbook of Indian Law § 1.05, at 81.

To that end, § 5 of the IRA empowers the Secretary of the DOI (the "Secretary") to acquire land in trust for Indian tribes, such that the land is exempt from state and local taxation. 25 U.S.C. § 465. A tribe is qualified to have land taken into trust under § 5 if it meets the IRA's definition of "Indian, " which includes, inter alia, "all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under Federal jurisdiction." Id . § 479. DOI has promulgated regulations at 25 C.F.R. Part 151, which establish procedures for the acquisition of land in trust under § 5. These include criteria the Secretary must consider in making an acquisition, depending on whether the acquisition is on-reservation, 25 C.F.R. § 151.10, or off-reservation, id. § 151.11.

B. Factual Background

"OIN is a federally recognized Indian Tribe and a direct descendant of the Oneida Indian Nation, " which historically occupied what is now central New York, although the tribe's land holdings and population have fluctuated significantly over time. City of Sherrill, N.Y. v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y., 544 U.S. 197, 203 (2005). On April 4, 2005, OIN submitted a request to DOI under § 5 of the IRA requesting that the Secretary acquire approximately 17, 370 acres in Madison County and Oneida County, New York in trust status for OIN.[2] Dkt. No. 1-1 ("ROD") at 6. The request comprised properties that were reacquired by OIN in open-market transactions, two centuries after they had last been possessed by the Oneidas. Id . The land is the location of OIN's Turning Stone Resort & Casino ("Turning Stone"), a Class III casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act ("IGRA"), 25 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq.; various other commercial enterprises, such as gas stations and golf courses; and OIN's government and cultural facilities. ROD at 6. OIN intends to continue existing uses of the land. See id. at 8, 31.

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321 et seq., DOI issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") regarding the proposed fee-to-trust request on November 24, 2006. Id. at 6. The purpose of the proposed action was "to help address the Nation's need for cultural and social preservation and expression, political self-determination, self-sufficiency, and economic growth." Id. at 8. Public comments were solicited until February 22, 2007, and public hearings were held on December 14, 2006, and February 6, 2008. Id. at 6-7. DOI issued its final EIS on February 22, 2008. Id. at 7.

In the final EIS, DOI analyzed the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the proposed action-acquiring the full 17, 370 acres requested in trust-and eight reasonable alternatives. Id. at 6-7. On March 20, 2008, DOI issued its decision to accept approximately 13, 003.89 acres in trust for the Nation. Id. at 7. The selected alternative "reflects the balance of the current and short-term needs of the Nation to reestablish a sovereign homeland and the New York State and local government requests to establish a more contiguous and compact trust land grouping." Id. at 19. Under the selected alternative, 4, 284 of the requested acres would not be placed into trust. Id . The selected lands are centered around Turning Stone in Oneida County and OIN's 32-acre territory in Madison County. Id . The decision included lands in the Towns of Verona and Vernon, both located in Oneida County. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 4, 5.

C. Procedural Background

Plaintiffs commenced this action on June 19, 2008, under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 551, et seq., and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202.[3] Compl. ¶ 1. The named Defendants are: Sally M. R. Jewel, United States Secretary of the Interior; DOI; and Mark Filip, in his official capacity as Acting Attorney General of the United States (collectively, "Defendants").

Plaintiffs' Complaint raises the following claims: (1) § 5 of the IRA, as applied to the State of New York, violates the Tenth Amendment; (2) the IRA does not apply to the lands for which OIN requests trust status because the lands were never the subject of allotment under the GAA, OIN was neither federally recognized nor under federal jurisdiction in 1934, and OIN voted not to have the IRA apply to it; and (3) DOI's determination was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not accordance with the law because it was based on the erroneous assumption that Turning Stone is legally operated under the IGRA and failed to consider various factors under the applicable regulations. See generally id.

On September 22, 2008, Defendants filed a Motion seeking partial dismissal of Plaintiffs' Complaint. Dkt. No. 10. On November 18, 2008, Plaintiffs filed a Motion seeking summary judgment with respect to their second claim. Dkt. No. 18. In a Memorandum-Decision and Order dated September 29, 2009, the Court granted Defendants' Motion-dismissing Plaintiffs' claim under the Tenth Amendment, Plaintiffs' claims related to the IGRA, and all claims against the Attorney General of the United States-and denied Plaintiffs' Motion. Dkt. No. 38 ("2009 Memorandum-Decision and Order").

On November 15, 2011, the parties both moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims in Plaintiffs' Complaint. Dkt. Nos. 46; 47. A newly central issue raised in the case was whether OIN was eligible to have land taken into trust under the IRA in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, 555 U.S. 379 (2009). In Carcieri, the Supreme Court determined that the word "now" in the definition of "Indian" in the IRA-"all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal jurisdiction"-meant the date of the IRA's enactment in 1934. Carcieri, 555 U.S. at 381. Thus, to be eligible to have land taken into trust under the IRA, a tribe must have been under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Since Carcieri had not been addressed in the ROD, the Court issued a Memorandum-Decision and Order dated September 24, 2012, denying all motions for summary judgment across the related cases, and remanding to DOI to establish a record and determine in the first instance whether OIN was under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Dkt. No. 56.

On February 19, 2014, after the parties had an opportunity to submit evidence for DOI to consider, DOI filed an Amendment to the ROD applying Carcieri to OIN, consistent with the Court's remand. Dkt. No. 61-1 ("Opinion"). The Opinion concluded that OIN "was under federal jurisdiction in 1934 because the Oneidas voted in an election called and conducted by the Secretary of the Department of the Interior pursuant to Section 18 of the IRA on June 18, 1936." Id. at 3. The Opinion determined that while the vote alone was sufficient, there were a ...

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