October 30, 2019

New York courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to consider lawsuits involving disputes between and among rival factions of the Cayuga Nation


Certain members of the Cayuga Nation* [Petitioners] constituting one faction claiming authority to act on behalf of the Nation commenced this action, purportedly on behalf of the Nation, against certain individuals comprising a rival faction [Defendants] claiming similar authority.

To resolve these claims, said the Court of Appeals, 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.

Although Plaintiffs claimed otherwise, the court held that despite 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, it held that New York courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to consider this dispute, noting that The Nation relies on "the Council itself" and not any "written law, court, or body other than the Council . . . for resolving disputes that arise within the Council."

Noting that "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' it could not adjudicate the dispute without interfering with tribal sovereignty and self[-]government'" and that the BIA urged the Nation to resolve the leadership dispute internally," reversed the order of the Appellate Division, with costs, "granted the motion to dismiss the complaint, and the certified question answered in the negative."

Opinion by Judge Feinman. Chief Judge DiFiore and Judges Rivera and Stein concur. Judge Garcia dissents in an opinion. Judge Wilson dissents in a separate dissenting opinion. Judge Fahey took no part.

*Footnote 1 in the court's decision states: "The Cayuga Nation is one of "[t]he [Six Nations of the Iroquois] Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee' [People of the Longhouse], which refers to the historical alliance between the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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