Ellis Island, N.J.? Yes, After High Court Pares Big Apple


Having lost two football teams, several corporate headquarters and uncounted taxpayers to New Jersey, New York had drawn a line in the landfill when it came to Ellis Island.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the historic gateway for millions of immigrants in New York Harbor is mainly in New Jersey, adding one more indignity for the Big Apple.

At stake was mostly bragging rights, since the federal government actually owns the island. As the nation's chief immigration center from 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was where most newcomers first set foot on American soil.

New Jersey officials noted, however, that the state now stands to share in tax revenue from any future development of the island, which is located a quarter-mile from Jersey City and a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan.

The court may have spoken, but as with most arguments between these fractious neighbors, the debate rages on.

Declared New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani: "No matter what the Supreme Court says, you're still not going to tell me that when my grandfather was on the shores ready to come on that ship in Genoa, he was saying to himself, 'I'm going to New Jersey.' "

Magnanimous in victory, New Jersey Atty. Gen. Peter Verniero insisted: "We are not at war with New York. This was about the simple principle that a deal is a deal."

The deal, in this case, was an 1834 border agreement under which New York got jurisdiction over the then-existing three-acre island, while New Jersey held sway over the submerged lands to the south and west of it.

If it sounds like the city sharpies snookered their country cousins by trading wet land for dry, the deal eventually came back to swamp New York.

Over the years, to accommodate the growing flow of immigrants, the federal government expanded the island with landfill until it reached its present 27.5 acres.

After the immigration center was lavishly restored and began attracting thousands of tourists, New Jersey sued New York in 1993 contending that the expanded area remained part of the Garden State.

The court agreed in a 6-3 vote, (New Jersey v. New York, No. 120) upholding most of the April 1997 recommendations of fact-finder Paul Verkuil.

However, the justices rejected Verkuil's proposal that the 1834 boundary lines be adjusted to avoid splitting buildings. He suggested placing the main immigration building and ferry slip entirely within New York.

Instead, the court ruled that the New York-New Jersey line must cut across the main building and the dock. The awkward split is "the price of New Jersey's success" in the suit, Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.

"Many of us have parents or grandparents who landed as immigrants at Ellis Island, New York," wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer. "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."

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority were ignoring the historical record that the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, as well as the people who lived and worked there, all thought they were in New York.

"There is no evidence that any of those people ever believed that any part of Ellis Island was in the State of New Jersey," Stevens wrote.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman hailed the decision, saying that it "establishes, once more, New Jersey's proper place in American history."

To many New Yorkers, New Jersey's proper place is a distant second, if that.

"This doesn't change a thing in the hearts of the tens of millions who sailed into New York Harbor," New York Atty. Gen. Dennis Vacco said.

Giuliani, whose administration has granted millions of dollars in tax breaks to law firms, brokerages and other businesses to get them to stay put in Manhattan, last month railed at Whitman when rumors surfaced that New Jersey was trying to lure baseball's Yankees across the Hudson River.

Although Whitman denied any such attempt, the mayor threatened to steal New Jersey's pro sports teams in return.

When the Ellis Island decision came down, Giuliani was in a mood to annex more New Jersey territory.

The mayor asserted in a press conference that "the only New Yorker" on the court, Antonin Scalia, was one of the three dissenting justices, joining Stevens and Clarence Thomas.

When reporters pointed out that Scalia was born in Trenton, N.J., Giuliani quickly shot back that the justice graduated from Regis High School in Manhattan.

Asked whether he had forgotten that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted with the majority, was born and raised in Brooklyn, Giuliani retorted: "Some people forget their roots."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World