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A 200-year-old dispute over the ownership of a 64,000-acre tract of land in upstate New York has led to a $247.9 million judgment against the state of New York. On Oct. 2, U.S. District Judge Neal P. McCurn ordered the state to pay $211 million in interest on a $36.9 million verdict awarded last year to the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York and its affiliate, the Seneca Cayugas of Oklahoma. The judgment, if upheld, will go to the 468 members of the Cayugas in New York and the 2,200 members of the Oklahoma segment of the tribe. A SALE IN 1795 The Cayuga Indians sued the state in 1980, charging that New York had purchased the land from the tribe almost two centuries earlier in violation of the U.S. Trade and Intercourse Act. This law, passed in 1790, “provides that any acquisition of Indian land without the approval by Congress is null and void,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Martin R. Gold of New York’s Rubin Baum. The Cayugas originally had held 3 million acres in upstate New York and had sold all but 64,000 acres before the federal law took effect. In 1795, the state bought 61,000 acres of this remaining 100 square miles of land. Then in 1807, the state bought the rest. The Cayugas contended that these two latter purchases should be voided because neither was approved by Congress. The Cayugas had never wanted to sell the land, Gold said. “Shortly after they lost the land, they started efforts to get it back.” But the tribe was barred from suing the state until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974 gave tribes the right to pursue claims in federal court. New York v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661. The Cayugas then hired a lawyer and sought a settlement of the tribe’s claims to the 64,000 acres. At one point, the state had agreed to pay the tribe $8 million. But the settlement fell apart when it failed to receive congressional approval, Gold said. In 1980, the Cayugas sued the state in federal court. Cayuga Indian Nation of N.Y. v. N.Y., No. 80-CV-930 (N.D.N.Y.). But the lawsuit repeatedly stalled, as McCurn dealt with a series of issues, including the statute of limitations and whether the state violated federal law in buying the land. In 1991, McCurn had issued a summary judgment for the Cayugas, determining that the land purchase was null and void. He also ruled that the clock did not begin running until after 1974, Gold said, because the tribes were barred from suing before that. At one point, the Cayugas were seeking a return of the property, which they would then lease back to the current owners. In 1999, Judge McCurn rejected that, determining that the state should pay the tribe the value of the land, plus rent and fair use dating back to 1795. The case was set for a jury trial to determine how much the state owed, on its own behalf and on behalf of the current and former residents. In February 2000, a Syracuse, N.Y., jury awarded the Cayugas $36.7 million. This amount, Gold said, was “highly unfavorable” to the Cayugas and was even lower than the numbers suggested by the state. The plaintiffs had asked for $350 million. After the jury issued its verdict, the plaintiffs then sought an addition of prejudgment interest, dating back to the time the land was sold, estimating that the total interest owed was $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion. The rental fee for the first full year, 1796, was $15,000, Gold said. Compounded annually, the state owed $83 million for that year alone. McCurn held a bench trial on the plaintiffs’ claims for prejudgment interest. The state contended that the land deal was valid and that it should not pay anything, but at the very least any prejudgment interest should accrue only from the time the lawsuit was filed. The plaintiffs hired an economist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Peter Temin, who calculated the lowest-risk government bond interest rate for each year since 1795. The rate in later years was from the U.S. Treasury, Gold said. But in the early days of the Republic, bonds issued in individual states were the most stable; Temin used these rates. Using the lowest-rate bonds, the amount still approached $2 billion.

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