Most of Ellis Island moves to N.J. N.Y. can't claim it all, Supreme Court rules

May 27, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The immigrant ancestors of countless Americans first set foot on American soil at Ellis Island, N.Y. Or so they thought -- until yesterday, when the Supreme Court said maybe not.

Now, many families may have to insert a footnote in their album: Their forebears might have arrived in New Jersey, not New York. Ellis Island, it turns out (at least as a legal matter), is in both states.

Ellis Island, an enclave of memory-filled and history-encrusted land and buildings lying in New York harbor a mile off Manhattan, was the entry point for more than 12 million immigrants. It has not been used as an immigration station in 44 years.

The island's ties to New York have been long-standing and sometimes colorful: Fiorello LaGuardia, later New York mayor, was an interpreter there early in this century. But yesterday, a majority of the Supreme Court said the evidence that the island is in New York is not strong enough to make it so.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that "many of us have parents or grandparents who landed as immigrants at 'Ellis Island, N.Y.' " But those two justices wound up voting for the majority's conclusion that history does not bear out such an assumption.

In the latest twist in a dispute that dates back more than three centuries, the court, itself divided by a 6-3 vote, chose to split Ellis Island yesterday. Three acres, the size of the original island, are in New York, the court majority said, and 24.5 acres, made of landfill, are in New Jersey.

The justices noted that under an 1834 agreement, the submerged land around the original three-acre Ellis Island was deemed part of New Jersey. Therefore, when that land was filled in, the resulting 24.5 acres were in New Jersey.

As a result of the ruling, a boundary line between the states -- called a "bizarre boundary" by the dissenters -- will wander through three of the historic buildings on the site, dividing them up in an imaginary way.

That line will complicate Ellis Island's future: It will probably take more lawyers' time and fees to sort out who controls development of the island as a tourist and conference center.

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote the court's main opinion, a 44-page document filled with historical detail, found the key to the issue to be New York's failure to assert clear-cut authority over the 24.5 acres of fill.

Souter discounted statistics about births, deaths, census figures, government policy statements, police and firefighting records and court rulings, saying they do not make clear that New York has made a sufficient claim to the island.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, in separate dissents, said it has been a common belief that Ellis Island -- in toto -- was in New York.

"One may infer from Justice Breyer's opinion," Stevens wrote, "that his grandparents shared that opinion as well."

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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