WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation, a decision that state and federal officials have warned could throw Oklahoma into chaos.
The court’s 5-4 decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, means that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against American Indian defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the second-largest city.
The court’s ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions won by local prosecutors. The case, argued by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, revolved around an appeal by an American Indian who claimed state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reservation land that belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The reservation once encompassed 3 million acres (12,100 square kilometers), including most of Tulsa.
The Supreme Court, with eight justices taking part, failed to reach a decision last term when it reviewed a federal appeals court ruling in a separate case that threw out a state murder conviction and death sentence. In that case, the appeals court said the crime occurred on land assigned to the tribe before Oklahoma became a state and Congress never clearly eliminated the Creek Nation reservation it created in 1866.
The case the justices decided Thursday involved 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for molesting a child. Oklahoma state courts rejected his argument that his case does not belong in Oklahoma courts and that federal prosecutors should instead handle his case.
McGirt could potentially be retried in federal court, as could Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe member in 1999 and sentenced to death. But Murphy would not face the death penalty in federal court for a crime in which prosecutors said he mutilated the victim and left him to bleed to death on the side of a country road about 80 miles southeast of Tulsa.
The United States Attorneys for the Northern, Eastern and Western Districts of Oklahoma released teh following joint statement:
“As Oklahoma’s United States Attorneys, we are confident tribal, state, local, and federal law enforcement will work together to continue providing exceptional public safety under this new ruling by the United States Supreme Court.”
Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) also issued the following statements after the Supreme Court ruled in McGirt v. Oklahoma.
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling determines that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was not dis-established when Oklahoma became a state,” said Lankford. “The work will continue in the days ahead to clarify a framework for criminal and civil regulatory jurisdiction that provides consistency and predictability for all people living and doing business within the state. However, I am grateful for the commitment from the state and the 5 Tribes to work with the delegation to craft legislation that ensures that the ruling has a minimal impact on individuals and businesses throughout Oklahoma. Our greatest priority should be to provide for the safety of communities by ensuring those serving time for crimes continue to do so, and individuals that commit crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law. I look forward to working with the tribes, the state, and other members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation to finding a solution acceptable to all parties.”
“Today’s ruling on McGirt v. Oklahoma sheds light on an issue debated for some time now,” Inhofe said. “As we move forward, I have no doubt we can work together with state officials, tribal organizations, and the delegation to find a workable solution for everyone that ensures criminals are prosecuted and brought to justice in the most appropriate manner. We have a duty to all American citizens to uphold the Constitution and stand up for victim’s rights. Our number one priority will always be the safety of each and every Oklahoman.”
The State of Oklahoma, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations released the following joint statement as well saying:
“The State, the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations have made substantial progress toward an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice addressing and resolving any significant jurisdictional issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma.
The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused. We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.
The Nations and the State are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights. We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone.”
Oklahoma’s congressional delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives issued the following joint statement, too.
“Today, the Supreme Court provided a long-awaited ruling on McGirt v. Oklahoma on an issue concerning the Five Tribes of Oklahoma and all Oklahomans. We are reviewing the decision carefully and stand ready to work with both tribal and state officials to ensure stability and consistency in applying law that brings all criminals to justice. Indeed, no criminal is ever exempt or immune from facing justice, and we remain committed to working together to both affirm tribal sovereignty and ensure safety and justice for all Oklahomans.”
The Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma said it was disappointed in the ruling:
“The Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma is disappointed in today’s majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma, but we are moving forward to work with the state of Oklahoma, the tribes and Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation to ensure that our members continue to have a stable, predictable regulatory and tax environment consistent with their interests,” Simmons said. “It is critical for continued investment in Oklahoma that the state maintain primacy with regard to the regulation of oil and gas operations, and that issues of title with regard to real property remain unaffected.”
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