A Seneca County judge has dismissed a legal case brought by one faction of the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York seeking to force another faction out of tribe-owned businesses in Seneca Falls.
In a written decision issued Monday, Seneca County Judge Dennis Bender stated that because the court cannot determine who leads the Cayuga Indian Nation, he could not intervene in the ongoing dispute between Clint Halftown, who claims he is the tribe's federal representative, and members of the tribe's Unity Council.
The decision reversed a temporary order issued by Bender early in May ordering the Unity Council to stay away from nation's Seneca Falls businesses pending the outcome of the legal case.
"Because the underlying allegations in this lawsuit are fundamentally founded upon the longstanding question of who has the right to lead the nation, no determination could be made by this court without interfering with tribal sovereignty and self government," Bender wrote.
The judge's eight-page decision came on the heels of a hearing Friday in Seneca County Court, where attorneys were ordered to show cause in Halftown's civil lawsuit against the Unity Council.
In the hearing, Halftown's attorneys asked Bender to continue an injunction against members of the faction, allowing the "status quo" to remain intact until the nation could iron out its ongoing leadership battle.
David DeBruin, Halftown's attorney, argued that the Unity Council disrupted business at Lake Side Trading gas stations in Union Springs and Seneca Falls on April 28 by stealing keys and wrongfully attempting to take control of the nation's property.
The Unity Council, however, argued its members truly lead the Cayuga Nation — making it their right to control the nation's property.
Stating DeBruin's argument had "strong surface appeal," Bender found the Unity Council's actions indisputably disrupted business.
"It is no less evident that at least some of the defendants have no respect for this court's temporary order which would have maintained the previous status quo," he wrote.
Despite the "actual contempt shown" by the defendants, Bender further determined that because he had no authority to order the Unity Council to vacate the nation's businesses, he could not punish its members for violating his original order.
In regard to Seneca County's request to place the matter in the federal government's hands, Bender also found the court had "no authority" to transfer the civil matter to either the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the U.S. District Court in the Western District of New York.
Although he determined the court couldn't intervene, Bender shared his thoughts on how the opposing factions should proceed.
By failing to determine and record a straightforward procedure for changing leadership, Bender opined that the Cayuga Nation bore much responsibility for its current volatile state.
If they were sincere about finding a "civilized way" to resolve the dispute, Bender urged both sides to agree to ask the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine who should be recognized as the Cayuga Nation's leader. He also encouraged both sides to dissuade their followers from engaging in further confrontations.
"A lack of a clear and unequivocal statement that confrontations are not countenanced by leadership will likely be viewed as tacit approval of further action by individuals which sadly to date has involved allegations of criminal activity," he wrote.
In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, Halftown called Bender's ruling "a recipe for chaos" and vowed to seek an appeal.
"Judge Bender's decision is not only wrong on the law but it ignores well established legal precedents that make it clear you can't take the law into your own hands," he said. "We are very concerned that Judge Bender's failure to enforce his own order will undermine public safety and could lead to violence and tragic confrontations in the county."
Joseph Heath, the Unity Council's attorney, was not immediately available for comment.
Earlier this month, Judge Thomas Leone granted a similar injunction in Cayuga County Court ordering the Unity Council to vacate nation-owned businesses in Union Springs.
Both sides are due to appear in Cayuga County Court to address the matter on Tuesday morning.