In a case being closely followed in Cayuga and Seneca counties, the U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a judgment prohibiting Oneida and Madison counties from foreclosing on Oneida Indian Nation-owned land and sent the case back to a lower court for reconsideration.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Monday stating that the court will not hear the case as scheduled on Feb. 23 and that is has vacated a lower court's ruling because the Oneida Nation waived its rights to sovereign immunity from tax foreclosure.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled that counties cannot foreclose on tribal lands because tribes have sovereign immunity.
The U.S. Supreme Court also ordered the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its previous decision in light of the nation's waiver.
Officials in Seneca and Cayuga counties were looking to the Oneida Nation's case for guidance in a similar foreclosure action by each county against the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York.
"The Supreme Court sent (the case) back and I believe it essentially overturns that decision," said Seneca County Attorney Frank Fisher. "It vacates the judgment and returns it to the lower court to reconsider."
The Oneida Nation case involved about 17,000 acres -- most of which the federal government has agreed to place into a tax-exempt trust.
Fisher said it's too early to tell how the U.S. Supreme Court's decision will impact the Cayuga Nation's foreclosure proceedings.
The U.S. District Court for Western District of New York is currently scheduled to hear arguments Thursday on whether or not Seneca County should be allowed to proceed with its foreclosure process. A similar hearing may be scheduled in the Cayuga County foreclosures.
Cayuga County claims the tribe owes nearly $124,000 in property taxes while Seneca County claims the tribe owes $5,500. Both claims are from 2008 and do not include 2009 and 2010.
Thursday's district court hearing may be adjourned to give both sides a chance to research the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Oneida Nation case.
Lee Alcott, an attorney representing the Cayuga Nation, said a key difference between the Oneida Nation case and the Cayugas' is that the Cayuga Nation is not waiving its sovereign immunity.
Alcott added it is unclear what impact the U.S. Supreme Court's decision might have on the Cayugas' foreclosure process.
The district court can still use the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' original decision when hearing the Cayugas' case, Alcott said.
The Cayugas claim their sovereign immunity gives them immunity from foreclosure even though they are required to pay property taxes.
David Schraver, an attorney representing Oneida and Madison counties, said he could only speculate on why the Oneida Nation waived its sovereignty.
With the case headed back to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court can re-examine the Oneida Nation's reservation status, whether foreclosure violates the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act and whether the tribe's due process was violated, Schraver said.
Attorneys representing the Oneida Nation did not return phone calls seeking a comment.
In a press release issued Monday, the Oneida Nation said, "We are very pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the nation's solemn decision to waive its immunity with respect to tax foreclosures, and we look forward to resolving this long-running dispute with the counties.
"The nation's strong preference is to resolve our differences with the counties outside of court. The nation has entered into government-to-government compacts with the cities of Sherrill and Oneida to govern tax and regulatory issues, and it stands ready, as it has always stood ready, to do the same with the counties."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Staff writer Nate Robson can be reached at 282-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenRobson.