Cayuga Nation v. Campbell, 70

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation34 N.Y.3d 282,117 N.Y.S.3d 105,140 N.E.3d 479
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
Parties CAYUGA NATION, by and through its Lawful Governing Body, Cayuga Nation Council, Respondent, v. Samuel CAMPBELL, et al., Appellants, County of Seneca, Intervenor.
Decision Date29 October 2019

34 N.Y.3d 282
140 N.E.3d 479
117 N.Y.S.3d 105

CAYUGA NATION, by and through its Lawful Governing Body, Cayuga Nation Council, Respondent,
Samuel CAMPBELL, et al., Appellants,

County of Seneca, Intervenor.

No. 70

Court of Appeals of New York.

October 29, 2019



140 N.E.3d 481
117 N.Y.S.3d 107

Members of the Cayuga Nation, a federally-recognized

34 N.Y.3d 285

Indian1 tribe, have been embroiled in a leadership dispute for more than a decade. One faction commenced this action, purportedly on behalf of the Nation, against individuals comprising the rival faction, asserting tort claims that are premised solely on defendants' alleged lack of authority to act on behalf of the Nation. To resolve these claims, New York courts would have to decide whether defendants were, at various times, or remain legitimate leaders of the tribe, a question that turns on disputed issues of tribal law that are not cognizable in the courts of this state given the Nation's exclusive authority over its internal affairs. Contrary to plaintiff's contentions, we cannot avoid this fundamental jurisdictional problem by decontextualizing a limited recognition determination issued by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that recognized the plaintiff faction as the tribal government for the purpose of distributing federal funds. We therefore hold that New York courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to consider this dispute.


The Cayuga Nation (the Nation) owns and occupies land in western New York State, including several properties at issue here. As part of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Nation entered into several treaties yielding certain pre-existing rights to the federal government during the late eighteenth century. However, certain inherent rights were retained. Specifically, the Nation maintains its right to sovereignty over its internal affairs. The Nation adheres to unwritten oral law and tradition, instructed by the Great Law of Peace, Gayanashagowa (the Great Law). The Great Law governs the process by which the Nation's clan mothers select, approve, and retain the power to remove the condoled chiefs who comprise the Cayuga Nation Council (the Nation Council), which governs the Nation by consensus decision-making ( George et al v. Eastern Regional Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 49 IBIA 164, 167, 2009 WL 1664693, at **2–3 [2009] ).2

140 N.E.3d 482
117 N.Y.S.3d 108

The Nation relies on "the Council itself" and not any "written law, court, or

34 N.Y.3d 286

body other than the Council ... for resolving disputes that arise within the Council" (George, 49 IBIA at 167).

The Nation's present leadership dispute arose in 2004 when the Nation Council fragmented—certain Council members (which included defendant William Jacobs and comprise part of the defendant "Jacobs Council") claimed that other Council members (which included Clint Halftown and comprise part of plaintiff "Halftown Council") had been removed from their positions on the Nation Council under Cayuga law.3 After a decade of continued division that is well-chronicled in numerous proceedings before the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) and federal courts (see Cayuga Nation v. Tanner, 824 F.3d 321 [2d Cir.2016] ; Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Eastern Regional Director, Bur. Of Indian Affairs, 58 IBIA 172 [2014]; George, 49 IBIA at 164),4 in April 2014, the Jacobs Council entered and thereafter took possession

34 N.Y.3d 287

of the Nation's security office and seized several sets of keys to the Nation's offices, businesses, vehicles, and certain personal property.5 The Halftown Council initially filed a lawsuit alleging trespass and other claims premised on these events in 2014, which was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (see Cayuga Nation v. Jacobs, 44 Misc.3d 389, 394, 986 N.Y.S.2d 791 [Sup. Ct., Seneca County 2014] ). Supreme Court reasoned that it lacked jurisdiction over the claims before it because "the underlying allegations ... are fundamentally founded upon the longstanding question of who has the right to lead the Nation" ( id. ). Thus, it could not adjudicate the dispute "without interfering with tribal sovereignty and self[-]government" ( id. ).

As the leadership dispute persisted, federal contracting processes prompted further

140 N.E.3d 483
117 N.Y.S.3d 109

BIA involvement. The Nation provides infrastructure, education, and other services to its citizens with funds issued under the Federal Indian Self–Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) (see PL 93–638). For the purpose of modifications to the Nation's ISDA contract, in 2015, the BIA recognized the last undisputed Nation Council (comprised of both Halftown and Jacobs Council members) on an interim basis. At that time, the BIA declined to make a more formal recognition decision or verify the results of a "statement of support" campaign undertaken by the Halftown Council, noting the absence of any authority permitting such campaign and that Halftown previously had rejected majority vote concepts as contrary to tribal law. The BIA urged the Nation to resolve the leadership dispute internally.

In 2016, the Halftown Council undertook another statement of support campaign. This time, the Halftown Council transmitted to members of the Nation—based upon the Halftown

34 N.Y.3d 288

Council's own records of the Nation's membership roll—a governance document setting forth the leadership selection process, a statement of support for that process, and a statement of support recognizing the members of the Halftown Council as the Nation's lawful leadership, asking the recipients to return mailers indicating their support if they agreed with those proposals. The Jacobs Council opposed the initiative, refused to participate, and sent a counterstatement to each individual who received the Halftown Council's mailing objecting to the statement of support process as incompatible with Cayuga law and traditional consensus decision-making by chiefs and clan mothers. Meanwhile, the Halftown and Jacobs Councils submitted competing proposals for new ISDA contracts to the BIA (see 25 USC § 5321 ), and the BIA notified them that it needed to recognize one faction for the purpose of executing the contract.

In recognizing the Halftown Council as the governing body authorized to contract on behalf of the Nation for ISDA funding, the BIA's Eastern Regional Director relied upon the results of the statement of support initiative—which it now deemed consistent with the Great Law—as "adequate evidence" that the Halftown Council represented the Nation. The Regional Director observed, however, that while his decision "accept[ed] the arguments put forward by the Halftown Council that the statement of support campaign ... demonstrated the legitimacy of that Council ... [,][f]urther application of the statement of support campaign to determine future Cayuga Nation decisions will be in the hands of the Cayuga citizens and leaders." Thus, "[g]oing forward, the meaning of the statement of support campaign [would be] a question of Cayuga Nation law."

That 2016 determination was upheld on administrative appeal by the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. Although the Assistant Secretary agreed that the statement of support process was consistent with the Great Law and that "[the] BIA may interpret tribal law in the limited circumstances [here]," he emphasized that "[f]ederal officials must still be cautious to defer to the tribe's interpretation of its own laws and its ability to internally resolve its disputes." The 2016 BIA determination was also upheld in a related federal action, in which the United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied the Jacobs Council's motion for summary judgment, and held that the Jacobs Council had not established that the BIA determination violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act or

34 N.Y.3d 289

due process (see The Cayuga Nation v. Bernhardt, 374 F. Supp. 3d 1 [D. D.C. 2019] ).

140 N.E.3d 484
117 N.Y.S.3d 110

In July 2017, the Halftown Council, styled as the "Cayuga Nation, by and through its lawful governing body, the Cayuga Nation Council," commenced this action against the Jacobs Council raising causes of action sounding in trespass, conversion, tortious interference with prospective business relations, replevin, and ejectment, and seeking monetary and injunctive relief arising from the Jacobs Council's ongoing possession and control of the Nation's...

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  • Cayuga Nation v. Campbell, 70
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • 29 Octubre 2019
    ...34 N.Y.3d 282140 N.E.3d 479117 N.Y.S.3d 105CAYUGA NATION, by and through its Lawful Governing Body, Cayuga Nation Council, Respondent,v.Samuel CAMPBELL, et al., Appellants,County of Seneca, Intervenor.No. 70Court of Appeals of New York.October 29, 2019OPINION OF THE COURT FEINMAN, J.140 N.E......

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