Ellis Island battle goes to high court Ownership: New York and New Jersey take their jurisdiction feud over Ellis Island to the Supreme Court, citing centuries-old documents to the former gateway to America.

July 11, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Empire State and its less grandiose neighbor New Jersey yesterday took to the Supreme Court a centuries-old dispute over which state owns which part of Ellis Island, once the gateway to America for 17 million immigrants and now a tourist attraction.

Citing English kings, ancient and modern maps, tax records and recent immigrant history, each state is seeking to gain -- or keep -- a big slice of the potentially lucrative real estate in Upper New York Bay and the Hudson River.

At stake in the unusual legal battle is the right to tax tourists, developers and entrepreneurs on the island, and to list on tourist brochures the entry point to the New World through which passed the ancestors of about 40 percent of Americans from 1890 to 1954.

Ellis Island was declared a national monument by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Each year, it draws about 1.4 million visitors, who spend $5 million a year at its gift shops and restaurant.

The National Park Service is ready to develop the two-thirds of the island that remain untouched since the immigration station closed in 1954. Four of the island's original 32 buildings have been restored, and developers have shown interest in opening a conference center, an educational institution or student housing there.

"To date, none of these plans have turned out to be fruitful," said Larry Steeler, deputy superintendent of the Statue of Liberty Monument and Ellis Island. "But I think it is safe to assume that if we presently do about $5 million [worth of business], there may be some additional monies available."

The current dispute can be traced to an agreement in 1834 that established a border between the two states, with the then 3-acre Ellis Island clearly in New York. Since then, government landfills have greatly enlarged the island, and New Jersey is laying claim to the expanded part.

The preliminary skirmishes in the battle are being fought before a special master, who is holding the first trial ever held in the Supreme Court building.

The arguments are expected to continue for a month as historians, academics and politicians are called to testify on behalf of the two states.

The special master, Paul R. Verkuil, a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school, will then sort through the facts and make his recommendation to the justices. The Supreme Court, which has exclusive power to resolve disputes between states, is then expected to render a decision.

New Jersey, which initiated yesterday's action, dated its claim to 1664, when England's King Charles II granted a portion of the land the Dutch had called New Netherlands, including the Hudson River, to his brother James, the Duke of York.

New Jersey, as a co-equal colony and sovereign state, claimed jurisdiction over half the Hudson River. The dispute dragged on until 1834, when the two states agreed that their boundary should be the middle of the river. Ellis Island lies to the west of that boundary, and so, according to New Jersey, should be under its jurisdiction. But the 1834 agreement gave New York control.

Title to the island eventually passed to the United States, and Ellis became a military installation to protect New York Harbor.

In 1890, the island was transferred to the Treasury Department and became an immigration station. Over the next 60 years, the government built landfills, which increased the island's size from 3 acres to 27 acres. New Jersey's claim focuses on the 24 acres that it says were added by landfilling waters that were within its half of the Hudson River.

Joseph L. Yannotti, an assistant attorney general of New Jersey, argued that filling in the land did not "change the basic premise" of the boundary line.

"Boundary means sovereignty," he said. "New Jersey has sovereignty over the land on its side of the border. Could [the landfill] extend 100 acres and yet remain in New York's jurisdiction?"

Arguing for New York, Judith T. Kramer, an assistant attorney general, cited a 1708 royal English edict that New York County's territory included both Ellis and Manhattan islands. In 1790, she noted, a house on the island was valued in New York City tax records as worth $1,200.

In 1794, she noted, New York City ceded control of the island to the state. When control was later transferred to the United States, there was a clause mandating that jurisdiction over the island would return to New York once the federal government no longer needed it.

More recently, millions of immigrants were given cards in as many as eight languages, she said, informing them they would be landing in New York.

She also pointed out that Ellis Island had a New York ZIP code and shared Manhattan's area code.

"Ellis Island always has been and is considered part of the city and county of New York and therefore part of the state as well," Kramer said.

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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