OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has released a decision on an ongoing battle with Native American tribes over the state’s authority to prosecute people accused of crimes on Native American lands, following a 2020 Supreme Court decision.
The court agreed earlier this year to consider limiting its 2020 McGirt decision, a ruling that the state says has produced chaos in its courts.
The state’s appeal is in the case of Victor Castro-Huerta, who was charged with malnourishment of his 5-year-old stepdaughter and has since pleaded guilty to a federal child neglect charge and is awaiting sentencing.
He was initially convicted in state court but that conviction and his sentence were overturned because of the way the state courts interpreted the law in the aftermath of the McGirt ruling. The state appealed with the strong support of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and is the latest strain on his relationship with tribal leaders in the state.
In the 2020 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation. The ruling applied to the Muscogee reservation, but led to similar lower court rulings upholding the historic reservations of several other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole nations that cover nearly the entire eastern half of the state.
The decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, meant that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against American Indian defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city with a population of about 413,000.
Stitt said during his State of the State speech in February that “Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes.”
The Supreme Court does not typically reconsider its decisions so soon. But the state argued that crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted because federal authorities — who can bring criminal cases on tribal land — are overwhelmed.
The 5-4 decision cut back on the high court’s ruling from 2020 that said a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation.
Stitt and tribal leaders previously clashed over Stitt’s desire to renegotiate tribal gambling compacts that he claimed were expiring. Federal and state courts ruled against Stitt in lawsuits over the gambling question.
Last year, Stitt decided to not renew hunting and fishing license compacts with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations as part of an ongoing dispute between the tribes and the Republican governor.
Governor Kevin Stitt released the following statement:
“Today’s ruling is a clear victory for all four million Oklahomans, the state of Oklahoma, and the rule of law. I am heartened that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor, allowing Oklahoma to prosecute non-Natives who violate the law and protect Native victims. Since the Court’s 2020 McGirt decision, federal prosecutors have declined thousands of cases like Castro-Huerta, a non-Native who monstrously abused his 5-year old Native stepdaughter. Justice has been delayed and denied to thousands of Native victims in our state for no reason other than their race. Now Oklahoma law enforcement can help uphold and enforce the law equally, as we have done for over a century.
This is a pivotal moment. For two years, as a fourth generation Oklahoman, member of the Cherokees, and Governor of the state of Oklahoma, I have been fighting for equal protection under the law for all citizens. Today our efforts proved worthwhile and the Court upheld that Indian country is part of a State, not separate from it. I look forward to working with leaders across the state to join our efforts in combatting the criminal-justice crisis in Oklahoma following McGirt.”Gov. Kevin Stitt
The Cherokee Nation also released a statement after the decision:
“With today’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law. During arguments, Justice Gorsuch asked if the Court would ‘wilt today because of a social media campaign’ – it is unfortunate that the answer appears to be yes. The dissent today did not mince words – the Court failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied Congress’s statutes, and accepted the ‘lawless disregard of the Cherokee’s sovereignty.’
While we are disappointed in this ruling, it does not diminish our commitment to meeting our public safety responsibilities and to protecting Oklahomans on our reservations and across the state. Tribal and federal jurisdiction remain unchanged by this decision, but the need to work together on behalf of Oklahomans has never been more clear.
Also unchanged is the affirmation of our reservation and our sovereignty. Despite the Oklahoma governor’s lies and attacks, the Court has refused to overturn the McGirt decision. As we enter a chapter of concurrent jurisdiction, tribes will continue to seek partnership and collaboration with state authorities while expanding our own justice systems. We hope that with these legal questions behind us, Governor Stitt will finally lay his anti-tribal agenda to rest and come to the table to move forward with us – for the sake of Oklahomans and public safety.”Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation released a statement:
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today in Castro-Huerta v Oklahoma is an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Native people. It hands jurisdictional responsibility in these cases to the State, which during its long, pre-McGirt, history of illegal jurisdiction on our reservation, routinely failed to deliver justice for Native victims.
While we hope for the best, we are not optimistic that the quality of effort from the State of Oklahoma will be any better than before.
Today’s ruling also purports to expand the State of Oklahoma’s authority on reservation lands to unprecedented levels to include concurrent jurisdiction on trust and restricted lands. This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States.
Tribal governments in collaboration with the federal government are best suited to protect our people and administer justice on our reservations. Public safety would be better served by expanding Tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within our reservation boundaries rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.
We look forward to collaborating with Members of Congress and the federal government to identify all options available to empower Tribal governments to ensure the safety and prosperity of all who reside, work or visit our reservation. This is a pivotal moment for all tribal nations.”Muscogee (Creek) Nation
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor released the following statement after the ruling:
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court stood up for the safety of Oklahomans of native American heritage in eastern Oklahoma. The Supreme Court recognized Oklahoma’s sovereignty and jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in eastern Oklahoma.
Federal prosecutors are only prosecuting one in four felony referrals from law enforcement officers in eastern Oklahoma. Now the State prosecutors can take up the slack and get back to what we have been doing for 113 years. The Biden DOJ predicted a “surge” in crime in eastern Oklahoma in 2023. With this decision, hopefully that surge can be avoided.
This decision significantly limits the impact of McGirt. It vindicates my office’s years-long effort to protect all Oklahomans—Indians and non-Indians alike—from the lawlessness produced by the McGirt decision. While we still have a long road ahead of us to fix all of the harms our State has experienced as a consequence of McGirt, this is an important first step in restoring law and order in our great State.
As we move forward, Oklahoma welcomes the opportunity to continue to work with our tribal and federal partners from both the eastern and western sides of the state. As those that brought our Great State together knew, Labor Omnia Vincit – labor conquers all things. It will take hard work and an unwavering willingness to do the right thing for the right reasons to ensure every Oklahoman, regardless of ancestry, receives equal justice under the law.”Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor
The Choctaw Nation released a statement:
“We are disappointed in this ruling, but we respect the authority of the Supreme Court, and we will integrate its decision into our continued efforts to provide effective criminal justice in our reservation. As always, we will continue to work with law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, local and tribal level.
To be clear, this ruling does not affect the main holding of the McGirt decision, which affirmed tribal sovereignty and requires the United States to uphold its treaty obligations. Our focus remains on protecting our members, as well as all 4 million Oklahoma residents.”Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton