N.J. Wins Claim to Most of Ellis Island
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 1998; Page A02
The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that Ellis Island, the historic gateway to America and the most visible symbol of the nation's ethnic heritage, belongs mostly to New Jersey, not New York.
The decision challenged many long-standing assumptions, including those of some justices, who said they initially had thought their forebears landed on "Ellis Island, N.Y."
But after a more careful review of the historic record, the court ruled that most of the 27-acre island falls within New Jersey's borders, using as the basis for its decision an agreement between the two states signed in 1834.
Because the federal government controls the island and today operates it as a national park, as a practical matter not much will change because of the high court's decision. What the ruling does is give New Jersey potential tax revenue, a greater voice in future development on the island and perhaps most important for the two grudge partners a definitive answer on who can claim bragging rights to one of America's most celebrated landmarks. Close to 2 million tourists visit Ellis Island each year and more than 100 million people can claim that a relative passed through there when the island served as an entry port for immigrants earlier this century.
"Every mapmaker in the world has some work to do," New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero said yesterday, adding that the island "is a national treasure that now New Jersey can rightly lay some claim to."
But New York Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco countered that "Ellis Island will always mean more than boundaries drawn by men or by the courts. Her past clearly belongs to New York. Her future belongs to all Americans."
The current legal dispute began five years ago, when New Jersey asked the Supreme Court to declare that New Jersey has sovereign authority over the island. It used as the basis of its argument the 1834 compact between the states that gave New York rights to what was then a three-acre island and New Jersey the surrounding waters. Beginning in the late 1800s, the island was expanded with landfill to its current size of 27 acres. As a result, New Jersey officials claimed, all that new land is theirs.
In 1994, the court agreed to settle the matter and appointed a special master to investigate the historical records. Relying mostly on the 1834 compact, special master Paul R. Verkuil said the filled lands did indeed belong to New Jersey. In his recommendations to the court, Verkuil urged the justices to depart only slightly from the 1834 agreement for practical reasons, so that some now-existing buildings would not be split between the states.
The justices followed most of his recommendations but said they had no authority to change the boundary, even if it was more practical to do so.
"[T]he 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. He added that a more convenient boundary line is a matter for an arrangement between the states themselves, with the consent of the federal government.
Souter rejected New York's position that even if the landfilled areas were once New Jersey's, New York had long ago usurped control of the island in Upper New York Bay, 1,300 feet from Jersey City, N.J., and one mile from the tip of Manhattan in New York City.
To make New York's case, the state attorney general argued that births, deaths and marriages on the island were recorded in New York; the few island residents had recorded themselves as New Yorkers and voted as such; and the federal government had understood the filled portions to be part of New York.
But Souter said such evidence was scant and, at best, inconclusive. He characterized the federal government itself as having a "grab-bag of opinions" on the question of which state had sovereign authority.
New York had emphasized that none of the immigrants to the New World thought they were landing in New Jersey, and two of the justices in the majority yesterday acknowledged such sentiment.
"Many of us have parents or grandparents who landed as immigrants at 'Ellis Island, New York,' " Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a concurring statement signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "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."
Joining Souter, Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.
Dissenting in New Jersey v. New York were Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Stevens stressed that millions of immigrants entering the country "believed that Ellis Island was located in New York." He noted that the destination listed on many steamship tickets was New York.
Stevens said his view of the evidence was that the filled portions, as well as the original three acres, were New York's because New York had asserted authority over the island during the heyday of immigration.
Scalia and Thomas based their dissent on the actual 1834 pact, which they interpreted as giving all the land to New York.
Separately yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal of a ruling from South Carolina that allowed the state to use its child-endangerment law to punish pregnant women who used illegal drugs. In Whitner v. South Carolina, the justices refused without comment to review the lower court decision upholding a law that makes it a crime for pregnant women to cause their babies to be born with drug addictions.
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