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ARBITER HEARS BATTLE OVER RIGHTS TO ELLIS ISLAND

SHARE ARBITER HEARS BATTLE OVER RIGHTS TO ELLIS ISLAND

A court-appointed arbiter must decide if New Jersey's claim to most of Ellis Island is an unjust land grab or overdue recognition that the landmark does not belong solely in New York.

Paul Verkuil, a special master appointed by the Supreme Court, this week heard the two states feud over more than 160 years of history in a unique trial at the Supreme Court.The closing arguments marked the end of the first trial ever in the high court's building.

Lawyers for the two states made their cases in an elegant, paneled conference room that featured a large fireplace, portraits of former justices and two large chandeliers.

Verkuil, a former Colombia University law professor, did not set a deadline to issue his recommendation to the Supreme Court. The court has the power to decide boundary disputes between states.

New Jersey attorneys contend that an 1834 bistate agreement proves its claim to all but the original 2.7 acres of the historic immigrant entry point.

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.

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 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 Jersy'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 newver forget what was the most important day of their liver," Kramer said.

She and Yannotti also argued whether it is practical to divide sovereignty on the island.