Whose island is it? Dispute going to Supreme Court N.Y., N.J. fight 200 years over title to Ellis Island

July 09, 1996|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON -- It began as a spat between neighbors, but it's anything but neighborly now.

Tomorrow, the battle for control of Ellis Island pits New York and New Jersey in a historic culmination of a 200-year-old dispute over the island. A special master will hear the case at the U.S. Supreme Court -- the first time a case has been heard there at the original trial stage since the 1790s.

New Jersey is suing New York for jurisdiction over the island, where more than 16 million immigrants first touched American soil between 1892, when the port of entry opened, and 1924, when immigration laws were enacted.

"New York's position is, 'We stole the islands fair and square and we're not going to give them back,' " said Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, whose city would gain control of the islands if New Jersey prevails. "We would be very happy for them to stop squatting on our property."

But Kristin Helmers, an attorney for New York City, pointed to 400-year-old land grants from Charles II of England. "They can't just come in after 400 years and say, 'Sorry, we made a mistake in 1904' and claim the island."

The high court appointed Columbia University law Professor Paul Verkuil to hear monthlong arguments in the Supreme Court building. His decision will then be reviewed by the full court.

New York collects about $40,000 a year in sales tax on food and concessions.

The nation's forefathers, anticipating just this kind of land dispute between states, wrote into the Constitution that only the Supreme Court has the authority to rule in such a matter.

Both states have dug through century-old archives to prove sovereignty. In addition to the land grants from the king of England, the evidence includes a 150-year-old compact that set the New York-New Jersey border in the middle of the Hudson River.

New York acquired the title to Ellis Island, which was originally less than 3 acres long, from the federal government in 1808. But an 1834 agreement signed by President Andrew Jackson stated that New Jersey and New York own the land under the water on their respective sides of the boundary.

New Jersey, pointing to a unanimous 1908 Supreme Court decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, claims a 24-acre landfill added to the island at the turn of the century crosses that boundary. New York will argue that New Jersey sold any underwater rights it had to the government in 1904.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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