The United States Supreme Court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma remains a reserve for Native Americans, a decision that state and federal officials warn could lead the entire state to chaos.
Court decision 5-4, written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, means that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against Native American defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the second largest city in the state.
“At the other end of the Path of Tears was a promise,” Gorsuch wrote in a decision Thursday, along with liberal members of the court. “Forced to abandon their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the west would be safe forever … Today we are asked whether the lands that these treaties promised remain Indian [Native American] reservation for the purposes of federal criminal law. Since Congress has not said otherwise, we keep the government on its word. “
The court ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions won by local prosecutors. But Gorsuch suggested optimism. “In reaching our conclusion about what the law requires of us today, we do not intend to predict the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially those that have not been appreciated for so long.” wrote
“But it is not clear why pessimism should rule the day. Over time, Oklahoma and its tribes have demonstrated that they can successfully work together as partners. ”
The three American attorneys for Oklahoma quickly issued a joint statement expressing confidence that “federal, state, local and tribal security forces will work together to continue to provide exceptional public safety” according to the ruling.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and former president of the tribe’s supreme court, said the state’s argument that such a decision would cause legal havoc was overstated.
“All the stories falling from the sky were dubious at best,” said Chaudhuri. “This would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans who commit crimes within limits.
“This case did not change the ownership of any land. It had no impact on the prosecutions of non-Indians. All it did was clarify the jurisdictional issues related to the border, and enhanced the Creek Nation’s ability as a sovereign nation to work with other sovereign interests to protect people and work in common interests. “
Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a citizen and attorney for the Comanche nation who specializes in tribal law, said the short-term implications of the ruling are largely limited to the criminal context and that serious crimes committed by Native Americans in parts of eastern Oklahoma. will be subject to federal jurisdiction.
“In the long term, outside of the criminal context, there may be some minor changes in civil law,” he said. “The majority opinion points to assistance with National Security, historic preservation, schools, roads, clinics, housing and nutrition programs, as possible changes. The Creek Nation will also have greater jurisdiction over child welfare cases involving tribal members. “
The case centered on an appeal by a Native American who claimed that state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reserve lands belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The reserve once covered 3m acres (12,100 km2), including most of Tulsa.
The supreme court did not reach a decision last period when it reviewed a ruling by the federal appeals court in a separate case that overturned a state conviction for murder and a 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 removed the Creek Nation reservation it created in 1866.
The case the judges decided Thursday involved Jimcy McGirt, 71, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for sexually abusing a child. The Oklahoma state courts rejected his argument that his case did not belong to the Oklahoma state courts and that it should be handled by federal prosecutors.
McGirt could be tried again in federal court, but he was not expected to be released from prison. He would likely have charges brought against him in federal court, said Michael McBride of the Oklahoma City-based law firm Crowe & Dunlevy.
Following the ruling, the state of Oklahoma issued a joint statement with the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations in which they pledged to work together on an agreement to address any unresolved jurisdictional issues raised by the decision.