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  • Supreme Court Report: New Jersey v. New York

  •   New Jersey Wins Ellis Island Suit

    By Laurie Asseo
    Associated Press Writer
    Tuesday, May 26, 1998; 10:50 a.m. EDT

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Ellis Island is mostly in New Jersey, the Supreme Court ruled today, ordering New York to share bragging rights to the nation's gateway for millions of immigrants.

    New York – which already lost the Giants and Jets football teams to its neighboring state – can lay claim to only part of the island's 27.5 acres, said the justices' 6-3 ruling.

    As a result, most of the island in New York Harbor from now on must be considered Ellis Island, N.J.

    "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.

    At stake was more pride than money. The federal government actually owns Ellis Island, which was the first American soil walked upon by 17 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.

    The immigration center has been restored as a museum visited each year by thousands of tourists who travel to the island by ferry.

    New York City officials had taken steps to have the whole island declared a city landmark. States also have regulatory authority over land within their borders, including zoning and environmental protection.

    Today's ruling largely upholds a court-appointed fact-finder's recommendation to divide the island between the two states, with New York getting about five acres including the main building and New Jersey getting the rest.

    New Jersey sued New York in 1993, basing its claim on an 1834 border agreement between the two states that was signed when the island was only about three acres. The rest of the island was created later by landfill.

    The 1834 agreement gave New York the above-water land, while New Jersey got the submerged areas. New Jersey contended those surrounding areas remained part of the Garden State when they were filled in and became above-water land.

    New York argued that when that area was filled in, it became New York land and has long been recognized as part of the Empire State.

    People born on Ellis Island were listed as having been born in New York, and the census listed Ellis Island residents as New Yorkers, the state's lawyers told the justices during oral arguments in January.

    Court-appointed fact-finder Paul Verkuil recommended setting New York's border at the low-water mark of the 1834 island and then adjusting the border to avoid splitting buildings between the two states.

    Verkuil recommended allowing New York to claim all the main immigration building and the area between it and the ferry slip. Other buildings would be considered part of New Jersey.

    The Clinton administration agreed with Verkuil that most of the island must be designated part of New Jersey. But government lawyers said the Supreme Court lacked authority to adjust the border, adding that any adjustment should be left up to the states.

    The Supreme Court agreed that New Jersey could claim the land to the low-water mark. But the justices also agreed with the Clinton administration that it could not adjust the original boundary to avoid splitting buildings.

    "These drawbacks are the price of New Jersey's success in litigating under a compact whose fair construction calls for a line so definite," Souter wrote.

    His opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

    Breyer wrote separately, "Many of us have parents or grandparents who landed as immigrants at 'Ellis Island, New York.' And when this case was argued, I assumed that history would bear out that Ellis Island was part and parcel of New York. But that is not what the record has revealed."

    Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

    Stevens wrote that he believed the evidence showed the filled areas were part of New York for more than 60 years and therefore that state should have the right to govern the entire island.

    The Supreme Court allowed New Jersey to sue New York in 1993 without having to go first to a lower court. The justices sometimes invoke their "original jurisdiction" to resolve disputes between states.

    The case is New Jersey vs. New York, 120 Original.

    © Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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