New York, New Jersey Battle over Ellis Island Supreme Court to Settle Ownership Dispute

Article excerpt

For 200 years, the states of New Jersey and New York have cast their eyes just offshore to an oddly shaped but expanding bit of rock and dirt and have thought: "That's mine."

For 200 years, neither side prevailed - completely.

But in what could be the final courtroom battle over who owns Ellis Island, both sides unleashed their opening broadsides on Thursday, swathing their arguments in historic documents excavated from moldy boxes and distant archives. From Henry Hudson's descriptions of New York Harbor to land grants from Charles II of England to a previous border decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, each state argued for a swift U.S. Supreme Court decision in its favor. Paul Verkuil, a law professor appointed by the Supreme Court to hear the case, decided to convene all the sessions on Ellis Island to deepen the historical echoes. The documents offered spoke of lofty historical promises and legal precedence. The lawyers introduced more basic language. "They certainly were asleep," said Judith Kramer, the assistant attorney general leading the case for New York, arguing that it was too late for New Jersey to bring suit. She and her four colleagues representing New York repeatedly identified the Empire State as "magnanimous" in 1834, when in the first attempt to settle the dispute, it agreed to a border down the middle of the Hudson River, rather than the high-water mark on the New Jersey side first given them by 17th-century royal charters. Joseph Yannotti, the assistant attorney general heading the nine New Jersey lawyers, said his state did not find its neighbor all that generous. "This magnanimous gesture we have heard about today is preposterous," he said, noting that New Jersey would never have agreed to the compact that the New York lawyers seemed to be reading. The jousting is actually focused on control over the landfill portions of the island, or the roughly 24 acres added to the original nearly 3-acre chunk starting in 1892. New Jersey accepts that the basic rock, no longer easily discernible under all the generations of landfill, belongs to New York. …

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