SENECA FALLS — For the second time, Federal District Court Judge Charles Siragusa has ruled that Seneca County cannot foreclose on tax-delinquent properties of the Cayuga Nation.
And, also for the second time, Seneca County will appeal that ruling to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
In his first ruling, which was issued in 2015, Siracusa granted the Cayugas’ request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the county from foreclosing on several tribe-owned properties in Seneca Falls. County officials claimed the U.S. Supreme Court, in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, ruled the Cayugas do not have a federally recognized sovereign reservation and, until that happens, must pay local taxes.
Siragusa said while the taxes indeed may be due, the tribe’s sovereign immunity from litigation prohibits the foreclosures.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Siragusa’s 2015 ruling. The county’s former law firm, Harris Beach, missed a key deadline, negating its hope of having the case go before the Supreme Court. As a result, the matter was referred back to Siragusa for a decision on the Cayugas’ motion for summary judgement.
Oral arguments happened Thursday. Siragusa ruled on Friday.
“The judge also preserved the Nation’s claims under the 1790 Indian Non-Intercourse Act, a statute that requires that any sale of Indian lands be made by treaty, the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, the Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution and state laws which exempt any property within an Indian reservation from taxation,” Cayuga Nation leader Clint Halftown said in a written statement following Friday’s decision. “The judge’s decision recognizes rights of our people over our reservation lands that were made into law over two hundred years ago and are still the law today. Only Congress can disestablish a reservation.”
Seneca County Attorney Frank Fisher said Siragusa’s ruling was not a surprise.
“This is what we expected and figured would happen,” Fisher said. “The issues haven’t changed from Judge Siragusa’s first decision, and now that he’s ruled, we can go to the appeals court and eventually to the Supreme Court, where it needs to go.
“We just want justice for the taxpayers. The law says the Cayugas owe those property taxes. The issue is how to enforce collection in light of their sovereignty claims.”
Fisher said he expects the appellate court to uphold Siragusa’s decision.
“We either need to go to the Supreme Court for a ruling in our favor, or Congress can do something about this issue,” Fisher stated. “It’s a serious issue. The (Cayuga Nation) is not a super sovereign tribe that can ignore the law. The judge’s ruling was appropriate in the context of the status of the law today. We have to move forward to get to the Supreme Court.”
The Cayugas have bought roughly 1,200 acres of land from willing sellers since 2003, mostly in Cayuga County. They have filed an application to put 129 acres of that property into tax-exempt federal trust. A decision on that application is pending.