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Water Log 18.4

Supreme Court Decides Ownership of Historic Ellis Island

State of New Jersey v. State of New York, 118 S.Ct. 1726 (1998).

Tammy L. Shaw, 2L

In May, the Supreme Court decided a longstanding dispute over the ownership of filled portions of Ellis Island, the historic immigration site comprised of lands claimed by both New York and New Jersey. New Jersey petitioned the Court over the boundary and ownership dispute in 1993 after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied New York tort law on filled portions of the Island. After arguments from both states and recommendations by the appointed Special Master, the Court held that New Jersey has sovereign jurisdiction over the filled portions of the Island, measured by the low water mark of the original three-acre Island, leaving New York with jurisdiction over the original three-acre area of the Island.

Ellis Island: From 3 to 24 Acres

The dispute over claim to ownership of Ellis Island is not a new one. A land grant from the Duke of York in the late 18th century divided the areas of present day New York and New Jersey, including Ellis Island, between two proprietors and the ownership dispute continued long after the territories passed out of private ownership. In 1834, the states made an early attempt to settle the dispute with a compact that set the boundary line between the States along the middle of the Hudson River. It also carved out Ellis Island (then 3 acres) as a part of New York despite its location on the New Jersey side of the river. The states agreed that New York had sovereign authority over the Island and that New Jersey retained sovereign rights over submerged lands on its side of the boundary line.

New York had ceded jurisdiction over the Island to the United States in 1800 for the purpose of defense and fortification of the city. The U.S. maintained a military presence on the Island until the late 1880's and in 1891, the United States government began to use the Island to receive immigrants. As immigration into the U.S. increased, the need for larger facilities prompted the government to begin filling in around the Island's shoreline, slowly adding 24.5 acres to the original Island. In 1954, immigration was diverted from the Island and it was developed as a national historic site under the direction of the National Park Service.

New York and New Jersey continued to assert rival claims of sovereign authority over the filled portions of the Island throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for taxes generated from concessions at the Island's museum and for the less tangible benefit of laying claim to the unique history of the Island. In the years that it served as the gateway to the United States, nearly 12 million immigrants came ashore on Ellis Island.

The Disputed Claims

In the present case, New Jersey sued for a declaration that the measurement of its boundary should include submerged lands to the high water mark of the original Island and for a permanent injunction prohibiting New York from enforcing its laws on the filled portions.

New York countered that the compact of 1834 provided for New York authority over the filled portions of the Island. New York explained that the compact was silent on the subject of the then common practice of filling in the shallow areas around the Island and that this silence indicated the drafters' assumption that any enlargement of the Island would subject the filled in portions to New York jurisdiction. New York also asserted two affirmative defenses, claiming that it had acquired jurisdiction over the filled portions of the Island by prescription (the doctrine of continual usage) and that New Jersey was barred from challenging this assertion by laches (the doctrine of delay). The Court appointed a Special Master to gather evidence and make recommendations toward resolution of this case.

After taking evidence, the Special Master concluded that the filled portions of the Island are under the sovereign authority of New Jersey by virtue of the compact of 1834. He also concluded that New York's authority over the original area (3 acres) of the Island should be measured to the mean low water mark of the original island land mass. The Special Master further concluded that the Court should adjust the boundary line between the two states to place all of the main buildings associated with the historic immigration facilities under the authority of New York. Both states filed exceptions to these findings.

The Court's Holding

The Court agreed with the Special Master's finding that New Jersey has sovereign authority over the filled land added to the original Island and that boundaries established by the compact of 1834 should remain as measured from the low water mark of the original Island. The Court held that the mean low water mark is the most appropriate measurement for this boundary based on common law precedents and the intent of the 1834 compact.

The Court dismissed New York's defenses finding that the state failed to meet its evidentiary burden that it acquired this portion of the Island through continual use. In dismissing New York's claim of delay against New Jersey, the Court noted that the long and varied history of the Island made it unclear that New Jersey had acquiesced its claim of sovereignty or that New Jersey could have known that New York was asserting its claim of sovereignty over the filled portions of the Island.

Finally, the Court further held that New York retains jurisdiction over the original 3 acre portion of the Island, as stated in the compact of 1834. The Court declined to adjust the original boundaries as the compact of 1834 that set these boundaries was ratified by Congress, leaving the Supreme Court no authority to change it.

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