On July 8, 2013, Judge Lawrence Kahn of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of New York issued an important ruling allowing critical portions of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s land claim to move forward. This ruling is the latest in a case between the St. Regis Mohawk, the State of New York, county and municipal governments, the United States, and other parties that has been going for more than three decades. The case, Canadian St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians, et al., v. State of New York (No. 5:82-CV-0783), involves an ancestral land claim brought by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for lands the State of New York had unlawfully taken from the Tribe in the early 1800s. The claim asserts that the State of New York violated the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, 25 U.S.C. § 177, when the State purchased land from the Tribe without federal ratification. The Tribe seeks return of some 14,000 acres of land.
The Defendants in the case had asked the court to dismiss all of the Tribe’s claims based on the legal defense of “laches” as applied in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. and similar Second Circuit land claims cases. This defense allows a court to dismiss claims if a tribe has waited “too long” to bring a claim about a historical injustice and if the “long-delayed” claims would disrupt the “justifiable” expectations of landowners and entities on the land today. Sherrill and its progeny have been roundly criticized for ignoring the reality of tribal land claims, and for improperly applying the equitable doctrine of laches in a legal claim, but have nevertheless quickly taken hold in “ancient” Indian land claims cases.
Importantly, in the July 8 decision, Judge Kahn held that even though the Second Circuit has expansively applied the Sherrill laches defense to block Indian land claims in recent cases, the doctrine is not a “bright-line rule that forecloses any possibility of a successful ‘ancient’ Indian land claim.” He concluded that to find otherwise would be to “prescribe a broader and disturbingly anti-democratic” meaning to the laches defense. The court noted that the Sherrill laches defense involves three distinct factors: passage of time, the disruptive nature of the claims, and the potential of the claims to upset justifiable expectations of individuals and entities currently occupying the land. The court’s ruling confirms that all of these factors must be considered on a case-by-case basis in any Indian land claim, and that the passage of a long period of time between dispossession of land and the commencement of a claim is not a dispositive factor or automatic bar to those claims.
In this case, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe was able to show using census data that the population in the Hogansburg Triangle area of New York is over 75 percent Indian and clearly differs from that of the surrounding region, unlike the lands at issue in Sherrill, which the Supreme Court found had a “longstanding distinctly non-Indian character.” Based on the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s population data, Judge Kahn found that the Defendants could have no “settled expectations” that would be upset by an ultimate judgment in the Tribe’s favor for that portion of the land claims – in other words, the third Sherrill factor did not apply. On that basis, the Court agreed with a Magistrate Judge’s recommendation to allow the Hogansburg Triangle claim to proceed.
Though the District Court ruling did apply the Sherrill laches defense to the Tribe’s other claims, the ruling sets out important limits on the Sherrill defense for land claims over lands that are heavily populated by Indians—particularly those adjacent to reservations. The ruling confirms that the courts should not, in Judge Kahn’s words, take Sherrill and other recent land claims cases as a sign to “embrace and endorse a seemingly limitless version of laches that would stamp out even the most deserving of Indian land claims.”
Hobbs, Straus, Dean, & Walker represents the St. Regis Mohawk in this important case. If you have any questions regarding this case, or if we may be of further assistance, please contact us at the information below.