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U.S.: New Jersey Wins Suit Over Ellis Island

Washington, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that Ellis Island -- once the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants -- is not where most people think it is.

In a decision that settled a territorial dispute between two U.S. states, the nation's highest court ruled on Monday that most of Ellis Island lies within the state of New Jersey, and not within the neighboring Atlantic Coast state of New York, which has long claimed the island as its own.

The decision does not mean much to the immigrants who passed through the island on their way to the rest of the country. The result of the 6-3 ruling by the nine justices means that most of the island in New York Harbor, including part of the main immigration building, from now on must be considered Ellis Island, New Jersey.

Ellis Island fills a little more than 11 hectares. It is about 400 meters from Jersey City, New Jersey and 1.6 kilometers from the tip of Manhattan Island.

New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero, who argued the case for his state, said Ellis Island, "is a national treasure that now New Jersey can rightly lay some claim to."

However, New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco said, "New Jersey's attempts to turn tradition and history into a mere territorial dispute between the states cannot erase the truth, nor can the court's ruling today deny New York's historic place in the history of Ellis Island."

Ellis Island originally comprised only a little more than a hectare of land. The U.S. government enlarged the island with landfill. In fact, the federal government still legally owns the island, which is managed now as a museum and national park by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Tens of thousands of tourists visit annually.

Ellis Island became the principal point of entry for immigrants to the U.S. in 1892. It closed for good in 1954, but in its 62 years of operation, more than 12 million men, women and children passed through its gates en route to a new life in the United States.

The court decision was a textbook example of one of the principal purposes for the existence of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is the final arbiter for disputes between or among the 50 states, and that includes settling boundary disputes.

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.

In the majority opinion, Justice David Souter wrote: "We have long recognized that a sudden shoreline change ... has no effect on boundary. The lands surrounding the original island remained the sovereign property of New Jersey when the United States added landfill to them."

In the dissent, however, Justice John Paul Stevens contended that when millions of immigrants entered the nation through Ellis Island and thousands of people worked on the island over the years, "There is no evidence that any of those people ever believed that any part of Ellis Island was in the state of New Jersey."

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.

The Supreme Court said New York did not gain sovereignty over the landfilled areas by recording five births, 22 deaths and five marriages on the island over the years as having occurred in New York. And the justices said New Jersey did not wait too long to sue. 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 one hectare 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. 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 New Jersey 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 New York state.