NEW YORK - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Ellis Island, the fabled gateway to America for millions of immigrants, belongs mainly to New Jersey - not New York - evoking a mixture of resignation and indignation from politicians, civic leaders and just plain New Yorkers.
"No matter what the court does, they're still not going to convince me that when my grandfather was leaving Italy and sitting on the dock waiting for the boat, he was thinking, `I'm coming to New Jersey,' " said New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, expressing the sentiments of many of his constituents on the 6-3 ruling.
At the Trenton office of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, press spokesman Peter McDonough joked, "Yes, we are going to put the Yankees there" - referring to the simmering controversy about moving the baseball team out of the Bronx and possibly to New Jersey.
The court largely upheld the recommendation of a fact-finding commissioner in ruling that the 27.5-acre island be divided, with New York getting about 5 acres and New Jersey the rest. Part of the historic Great Hall in the main immigration building must also be ceded to New Jersey, a place where the ancestors of many New Yorkers landed between 1892 and 1954.
"While we are disappointed with this decision, Ellis Island will always be part of New York in the hearts and minds of the immigrants who came to America seeking freedom and liberty," said New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican. "The decision can never change that fact."
New York state officials, including Attorney General Dennis Vacco, were reportedly already sniping at their neighbor's plans for the historic site, suggesting New Jersey may not take good care of the property.
Mrs. Whitman, who appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday to hail the decision, called the observation "a very unfortunate remark for the attorney general of New York to make."
She said that many of the buildings on Ellis Island are a "disgrace, not a fitting tribute" to the island's storied past.
She is "very pleased" with the decision, and her administration is already making plans to preserve its history.
Mr. Vacco, in a statement, called Ellis Island "a beacon of opportunity, equality and freedom that is the promise of America."
"New Jersey's attempts to turn that tradition and history into a mere territorial dispute between the states cannot erase that truth," he added.
The furor was actually a fight over historic pride, especially since the federal government has owned the island since 1808. In 1993, New Jersey sued New York, basing its claim on an 1834 border agreement between the two states that was signed when the island mass was only 3 acres.
The treaty gave New York the above-water land while New Jersey got the submerged area. New York contended that when that area was filled in, it became part of New York. Following the recommendation last April of a special master, or fact-finder, the Supreme Court agreed that New Jersey could claim the land to the low-water mark.
"The lands surrounding the original island remained the sovereign property of New Jersey when the United States added landfill to them," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that when millions of immigrants entered the nation through Ellis Island, and while thousands worked on the site over the years, "there is no evidence that any of those people ever believed that any part of Ellis Island was in the state of New Jersey."
Voting with Justice Souter were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Dissenting with Justice Stevens were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. …