The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2005, in a case involving the city of Sherill vs. the Oneida Indian Nation, the Indian tribes were not exempt from paying property taxes on lands they purchase on the open market.
From the day that ruling came out, Cayuga and Seneca county officials have rightfully stated that there’s no valid reason under law for the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York to refuse to pay taxes on their holdings in Union Springs and Seneca Falls.
But a new legal problem eventually surfaced when municipalities made an effort to foreclose upon Indian-owned properties for unpaid taxes. Federal law provides an immunity to tribes against lawsuits, and that includes foreclosure proceedings.
Seneca County officials in recent years have pushed forward with an effort to foreclose on Cayuga Nation land, but they’ve now lost in both the U.S. District Court and the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
We understand why Seneca County is fighting this battle, but we also wonder why our federal representatives in Congress haven’t done more with this issue. From the case law, it seems like the remedy rests clearly with them.
To that end, we urge U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with U.S. Reps. Dan Maffei and Tom Reed, to read the appeals court’s decision from last week and make it a priority to get legislation passed that provides a clear path for municipalities to enforce collection of property taxes.
The appeals court wrote regarding the Cayugas’ foreclosure protection: “This treatment of tribal sovereign immunity from suit is an avowedly ‘broad principle,’ … and the Supreme Court (like this Court) has ‘thought it improper suddenly to start carving out exceptions’ to that immunity, opting instead to ‘defer’ to the plenary power of Congress to define and otherwise abrogate tribal sovereign immunity from suit.”
Courts have made it clear. Property taxes must be paid on these lands, and Congress needs to adopt legislation to make that legal reality have teeth.