WASHINGTON (AP) — New York and New Jersey disagreed over more than 160 years of history Thursday in a unique trial at the Supreme Court to determine which state is the home for most of Ellis Island.
At the end of the first trial ever in the high court’s building, New Jersey attorneys argued that an 1834 bistate agreement proves its claim to all but the original 2.7 acres of the historic immigrant entry point.
Paul Verkuil, a special master appointed by the court, heard closing arguments by lawyers for New Jersey and New York in an elegant, paneled conference room that featured a large unused fireplace, portraits of former justices and two large chandeliers.
Verkuil, a former Columbia University law professor, will make his recommendations to the Supreme Court. The court has the power to decide boundary disputes between states.
The federal government owns the island, which was the landing point for millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954. The immigration center is now a museum.
Some nominal tax revenues are at stake, but pride over the restored landmark largely drives the dispute. The squabble takes its place among arguments over the relocation of pro football’s Giants and Jets to New Jersey, which state is the birthplace of baseball, and perennial threats to take the Yankees out of New York.
New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Joseph Yannotti said the 1834 compact set the states’ boundary in the middle of the Hudson River and the New York Bay, with each state getting the underwater area on its side.
Yannotti argued that New Jersey’s Hudson County should be the home of about 24 acres of landfill added to the island in stages after 1834, because that area falls on the New Jersey side.
“New York knows now as it has known since at least 1834 that its sovereignty ends at the middle of the river,” Yannotti said.
He also rejected New York’s efforts during more than 20 days of testimony to establish continuous sovereignty.
New York traces its claim to before the Revolutionary War and contends that New Jersey’s interest arose strongly in the last decade when it realized the island could be a tourist attraction.
“It’s a pattern of opportunism,” said Assistant New York Attorney General Judith Kramer. “Every time there’s money to be made, they jump on the bandwagon.”
New York attorneys offered documentation that showed island residents paid taxes to New York, recorded births and deaths in New York, and registered to vote as New Yorkers.
And Kramer began her closing arguments by reading from the memoirs of two immigrants whose recollections refer to Ellis Island, N.Y.
“Despite New Jersey’s efforts to minimize such memories, or obliterate the memories of 12 million immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island … these Americans will never forget what was the most important day of their lives,” Kramer said.
She and Yannotti also argued whether it is practical to divide sovereignty on the island.
Kramer said it would produce an “administrative headache,” but Yannotti said the federal government has already supported the idea in a 1992 worker’s compensation case.
Verkuil did not set a deadline to issue his recommendation.