Text of high court's Ellis Island ruling New Jersey wins historic tug-of-law with New York

May 28, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ELLIS ISLAND, N.J. - In the centuries-old geographical grudge match, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that 27.5-acre Ellis Island belongs much more to New Jersey than New York, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

"This judgment by the Supreme Court doesn't change the history of Ellis Island," said Barry Moreno, the librarian for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. "This doesn't change the past. This only changes the future. The immigrants came to Ellis Island, New York, not Ellis Island, New Jersey."

Perhaps the only real change will be the assessment and collection of state sales tax revenues from the museum's gift shop and restaurants. Since the museum opened in 1989, Aramark Corp., which sells souvenirs and food on the island, has charged New York state and city sales tax. The Supreme Court's decision Tuesday divides the museum's main building in a way that seems to put the gift shop in New Jersey but leaves the restaurant in New York, though part of the restaurant's outdoor seating area might be New Jersey as well.

"As a corporation, we will abide by whatever is decided," said James Anders, Aramark's general manager on Ellis Island. "We'll be more than happy to pay our taxes appropriately."

Anders said that he did not expect the court's decision to have any impact on business or on the 1.65 million people who visit the island each year. "It's a national monument, part of a national park," he said. "All they care about is that they can come out and see history."

And history grants both New York and New Jersey a prominent role in the arrival of America's immigrants. Of the 12 million or so immigrants who came through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, about two-thirds of them left the New York area for points west and south. From Ellis Island, they continued their journeys either by boat through the docks in Manhattan and Hoboken, N.J., or by train from Pennsylvania Station in New York or the New Jersey Central Railroad station in Jersey City.

Excerpts of ruling

Here are excerpts from the Supreme Court's 6-3 decision on Ellis Island. Justice David H. Souter wrote the majority opinion:

Ellis Island lies in New York Harbor 1,300 feet from Jersey City, New Jersey, and one mile from the tip of Manhattan. At the time of the first European settlement it was mostly mud, sand, and oyster shells, which nearly disappeared at high tide.

The Mohegan Indians called it "Kioshk," or Gull Island, while the Dutch of New Amsterdam, after its thrifty acquisition, renamed it (along with two other nearby specks) for the oyster, in recognition of the rich surrounding beds. England seized it from the Dutch in 1664, the same year that Charles II included the Island in a grant to his brother, the Duke of York, of the land and water of the present States of New York and New Jersey. The Duke in turn granted part of this territory to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, the proprietors of New Jersey, whose domain was described as "bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson's river."

Having wasted no words, the noble grantor all but guaranteed the succession of legal fees and expenses arising from interstate boundary disputes, now extending into the fourth century since the conveyance of New Jersey received its seal.

After the Revolutionary War, New York and New Jersey began their long disagreement about the common boundary on the lower Hudson and New York Harbor, with New York arguing that the grant to the New Jersey proprietors set the line at New Jersey's shore and so preserved New York's sovereignty over the entire river, and New Jersey contending that as a co-equal State emerging after the Revolution it was entitled to a sovereign boundary in the middle of the river.

Between the two competing lines, of course, lay the Oyster Islands, one of which, in 1785, came into the private ownership of the eponymous Samuel Ellis, whose heirs would be its last private owners. In 1800, the State of New York ceded "jurisdiction" over the Island to the United States, reserving only the right to serve judicial process there. Act of Feb. 15, 1800, ch. 6 (1797-1800 N.Y. Laws p. 454). In 1808, after obtaining property title to the Island as well, the State of New York granted all of its "right, title and interest" in it to the United States, "for the )R purpose of providing for the defense and safety of the city and port of New-York." Act of Mar. 18, 1808, ch. 51 (1808 N.Y. Laws, p. 273); Act of Mar. 20, 1807, ch. 51 (1807 N.Y. Laws, p. 67); Deed to Ellis Island, by State of New York to the United States, June 30, 1808. Before the War of 1812 began, the United States Army had taken over the Island, which it improved with the construction of barracks and a magazine, and fortified with a battery of 20 guns.

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