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  •   Supreme Court to Referee Ellis Island Tug-of-War

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 17, 1994; Page A08

    "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... "

    And how about your tourist attractions, economic prospects and tax revenues?

    That is what has two states arguing over who really has authority over Ellis Island, gateway to millions of immigrants, captured in the spirit of Emma Lazarus's poem and the nearby Statue of Liberty that greeted those who entered the United States at New York.

    Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to intervene in a dispute between New York and New Jersey over who can claim authority over the historic island. The justices issued an order allowing New Jersey "to sue" New York in the Supreme Court.

    The case of New Jersey v. New York could take years to resolve because it will first be heard by a special master appointed by the high court. After a record of facts and conclusions of the law has been compiled, either side could raise objections. Then oral arguments could be scheduled.

    In the meantime, New York, which considers the island part of the County of Manhattan, is holding tight.

    "If our neighbors are so hungry for historical significance that they would grab someone else's, let them try Philadelphia," the New York Times opined earlier this year, apparently on behalf of its people. It called "New Jersey's attempt to snatch Ellis Island ... unfriendly, unbecoming, un-American, untoward, unhelpful, unprincipled, unseemly, unwarranted and underhanded."

    In the same vein, the headline of an opinion piece by New Jersey Attorney General Deborah T. Poritz in Newsday was, "Ellis Island Is Ours, and You Can't Have It."

    Poritz noted that there is more at stake than historical cachet. The National Park Service, which manages the land for the title-holding federal government, has been considering developing the site. "Our state should have the dominant voice in any development plans ... and, of course, the island's economic development will generate more tax revenues; New Jersey is entitled to its fair share of those funds."

    The legal filings by New Jersey and New York Attorney General Robert Abrams disagree over the consequences of a 1834 boundary agreement signed by the two states. Under that pact, New York was granted the above-water land of Ellis Island, then only about three acres, and New Jersey got significant submerged portions. The compact did not specify the fixed geographic dimensions of Ellis Island.

    In 1880, New York granted the island to the United States government to use as a processing center for immigrants, and the government filled in about 24 acres of surrounding water. New Jersey officials say about 24 acres that were once submerged and have since been filled in are part of their state's Hudson County.

    Although the prospect of development has intensified the competing state interests, New York and New Jersey for centuries have argued over their borders. And each defends its position based on royal grants that first created the two colonies.

    The federal government had urged the Supreme Court to turn down the case, noting that it owns the land.

    "There currently is very little, if any, practical conflict between New York and New Jersey arising from activities on the island," Solicitor General Drew S. Days III told the court. "{A}lthough some of the buildings on the island might in the future be developed in a manner that would give rise to taxable interests in or activities on the island, such development has not occurred, and the prospects for future development are uncertain."

    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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