WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider limiting a recent decision about Indian land in Oklahoma that the state says has produced chaos in its courts.
The justices said they would take up a case to clarify whether the state can prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed against Indians in a large portion of eastern Oklahoma that the high court ruled in 2020 remains an Indian reservation.
The case will be argued in April, the court said.
But the justices did not agree to the state’s request that the court consider overruling the 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma altogether.
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.
“No recent decision of this Court has had a more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State than McGirt v. Oklahoma,” the state wrote in urging the justices to step in.
As a result of that ruling, Oklahoma lost the authority to prosecute Indians for crimes committed in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city.
State courts have since extended the decision to apply to crimes committed by or against Native Americans on tribal reservations.
“This is a step forward for the State of Oklahoma and is of paramount importance, given that the overwhelming majority of people who live in eastern Oklahoma are not of Indian heritage. Narrowing the scope of this case will not alleviate all of McGirt’s harmful consequences in our State, but it would ensure that non-Indians who victimize Indians can be prosecuted under the same rules as perpetrators who victimize non-Indians. More importantly, it will guarantee Indian victims the same protection and justice that all other Oklahomans enjoy,” said Attorney General John O’Connor. The Cherokee Nation celebrates the Supreme Court’s rejection of a blatantly political request to overturn its McGirt decision. With this rejection of the state’s request in this case, the court affirms its decision in McGirt. I am proud of the Cherokee Nation’s success over the past year and a half expanding our justice system in record speed and fighting for public safety, but it would have been more effective had the governor chosen to come to the table from the start,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Now that Governor Stitt’s fight against tribal sovereignty has once again come up short, we hope he will consider joining tribes, rather than undermining our efforts, so we can focus on what is best for our tribal nations and all Oklahomans.”
“I am encouraged that the Supreme Court has decided to address whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian Country. The fallout of the McGirt decision has been destructive. Criminals have used this decision to commit crimes without punishment. Victims of crime, especially Native victims, have suffered by being forced to relive their worst nightmare in a second trial or having justice elude them completely. The reality is that the McGirt decision has hamstrung law enforcement in half of the state. Oklahoma is a law and order state, and I was elected to protect all four million Oklahomans, regardless of their race or heritage. I will not stop fighting to ensure we have one set of rules to guarantee justice and equal protection under the law for all citizens,” said Governor Kevin Stitt.
The Cherokee Nation sent KFOR this response to the ruling letting the reservations stand.
“The court will separately consider an Indian law issue unrelated to reservation status: whether a state maintains authority to prosecute a non-Indian who commits a crime against an Indian in Indian country. Regardless of the outcome, the Nation will continue to work with state, local and federal partners to ensure that the public is protected on the Cherokee Nation’s reservation,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said.
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton released the following statement to KFOR.
“While the Supreme Court plans to address some of the effects of McGirt, today’s decision correctly recognizes both settled law and tribal sovereignty,” Batton said. “We thank the justices for clearly establishing their ruling in McGirt will not be reconsidered at this time. As a Nation, we will continue doing everything we can to protect our citizens and our neighbors. We hope Oklahoma’s government officials will now turn their attention to cooperation, rather than conflict.”
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation also sent the following statement following today’s decision.
“It is great news for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation that the U.S. Supreme Court in its order today declined to consider overturning the McGirt ruling that affirms our reservation and sovereignty. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation will continue its vigorous engagement in the judicial process in support of our sovereignty and public safety.”