TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey appeals court will allow a Native American tribe to move forward with a lawsuit claiming the state granted and then rescinded official recognition.
In a ruling Monday, the three-judge panel reversed a lower court ruling that dismissed the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation’s suit, which was filed in 2015 against acting Attorney General John Hoffman.
The suit claimed the nation was given official status as an American Indian tribe through a 1982 state resolution. The tribe alleged that when it tried to reaffirm the designation, it found the attorney general’s office had decided not to recognize it in 2012.
The lower court had ruled that the tribe was never established as an official entity because the resolution was not a law submitted to the governor. It said that although there were legal measures taken in the years following 1982, none actually granted the nation official recognition.
The appeals court said the lower court’s decision was undercut by the fact that the federal government apparently accepted the tribe’s status as official and provided it with funding.
At face value, the recognition itself is just a customary honor to the 3,000 members of the Bridgeton-based nation. But without it, the nation cannot say artwork is American Indian-made without being fined, and it also is ineligible for scholarships and grant funding.
Last fall, a judge also allowed a federal lawsuit to proceed.
“Five judges in two courts have now told the Attorney General in detailed written opinions that if the facts alleged by the tribe are true, the tribe has legitimate claims for constitutional civil rights violations,” the tribe’s lawyer, Greg Werkheiser, said. “One wonders how much clearer a message the defendant requires to realize the error of his actions.”
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment.