The wisdom of Souter Ellis: Dividing historic islet between two states guarantees only federal rule.

June 02, 1998

AFTER Solomon had consolidated his power as king of the Hebrews, he asked God for one thing, an understanding mind. Soon, two young women came to him, clutching the same baby boy, each claiming to be the mother. Solomon ordered the baby split in two with a sword, half to be given to each woman.

The first said no, give him to the other, but don't kill the child. The second agreed to the plan. Solomon awarded the living baby to the first as the true mother.

On this decision, King Solomon's great reputation for wisdom has rested for three milleniums.

Would that the Supreme Court had been so wise in deciding whose baby Ellis Island is, New York's or New Jersey's. This case, which had been kicking around the courts for 167 years, received a definitive ruling last week that was goofy.

The original suit was overtaken by a compact in 1834 in which the states agreed that the 3-acre island holding a federal fort was in New York while the surrounding waters belonged to New Jersey.

In 1892, the fort became a reception center through which, over 62 years, 12 million immigrants entered the United States. But in the 6-3 decision, the justices decided that only the 3 acres of the natural island belong to New York, while 21 acres added later by landfill are New Jersey's. Justice David H. Souter's majority opinion is solidly researched, historically sound and, as a practical matter, unworkable. He brought the sword of Solomon down through the main immigration building.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey has promised to appoint a commission for preservation, renovation and development of Ellis Island. A better idea, since both states embrace gambling, would be for Ms. Whitman and Gov. George E. Pataki of New York to shoot craps in the main immigration building, winner take all.

Or -- is it too much to hope? -- perhaps Justice Souter is cutting up the island to find the true governor, who will say, "no, give it to the other," so that he might then award that one the whole island.

It would be wise but, in recent times, unprecedented.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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