OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma is back at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, after a decision Wednesday on Native American sovereignty.
In the decision, the nation’s highest court of law voted to give the state’s concurrent jurisdiction with the federal government over crimes committed by criminals who are non-Indian.
“The Supreme Court has said very clearly that the state can have jurisdiction over crimes and Indians in Indian Country,” said Bob Nance, shareholder and director in Riggs Abney Law Firm’s Oklahoma City office.
The nine justices voted 5-4; Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivered the opinion in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, and Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.
“We’ve had complicated issues from McGirt, on. But this [case], the Supreme Court said was pretty simple. The question was, ‘Who has jurisdiction over a non-Indian defendant who commits a crime against an Indian in Indian country? And the answer, according to the Supreme Court, is there is jurisdiction, for both the state of Oklahoma and the United States of America,” Nance added.
The decision stems from an earlier case in which Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, a non-Indian person, was charged by the State of Oklahoma for child neglect of a child who was a Native.
Castro-Huerta was convicted in state court and sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment.
While Castro-Huerta’s state-court appeal was pending, this Court subsequently decided in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which established that much of Eastern Oklahoma was still considered Indian reservation and restricted the state of Oklahoma from prosecuting crimes on “Indian country.”
For state officials who disagreed with the 2020 McGirt opinion, Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling was applauded; it now gives the states the power to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands.
“I don’t want to give away my state to six different jurisdictions,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt, while addressing a crowd Tuesday following his win in the Republican primary for Governor.
“How do we piece back together and make sure we are all under one set of rules, regardless of our race,” he added in his speech, while recognizing tribal sovereignty.
Up until this case, legal experts said that a long-standing principle of tribal sovereignty and inherent criminal jurisdiction was the “tribes” ability to protect their own land, through a government-to-government relationship with the federal government.
“In cases where there are non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian land and where the victim is native, then that jurisdiction belongs to the federal government,” said Mike Andrews, Senior Vice President at McGuire Woods Consulting, Washington, D.C., also former staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“Now, the Supreme Court says not so fast where we have a non-Indian committing a crime against an Indian; we’re now allowing the state to have concurrent jurisdiction,” he continued.
Likewise, Wednesday’s ruling was also considered a victory for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, which had been opposed to the McGirt decision.
“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.”Attorney General John O’Connor
However, the decision was also met with opposition.
“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.’”Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin
The Quapaw Nation called the SCOTUS ruling an “affront to tribal sovereignty, erosion of well-settled federal law.”
“Today, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that is an affront on tribal sovereignty and erodes centuries of well-settled federal Indian Law. By inserting itself into an area reserved specifically for Congress, SCOTUS signals that plenary power is no longer absolute when it comes to Indian affairs,” said Quapaw Nation Business Committee Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd in an emailed statement.
Bob Nance said future cases could require proof that a defendant is Indian to move forward.
“The defendant has got to prove two things to be considered an Indian, which would move them into federal court or tribal court,” said Nance.
“One, do they have any Indian blood? And two, are they recognized as an Indian by either a tribe or the United States of America,” he added.
The ruling has also prompted additional questions, including what the day’s ruling means for criminal cases initially dismissed by the state.
“Those cases now where the similar facts where you have a non-Indian, an Indian victim committing a crime in Indian country, those convictions are all going to be upheld,” said Andrews.
Andrews also said there could be some initial uncertainty as a result of the decision.
“[Now} states are going to probably have to reallocate perhaps more resources than they had to in the past now that they now have jurisdiction, concurrent jurisdiction to handle these cases. I think the tribes and the feds and the state are now going to have to really work these jurisdictional issues out,” he added.