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Supreme Court sides with Oklahoma, narrowing scope in McGirt ruling

Posted at 9:12 AM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-29 19:06:41-04

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday the state of Oklahoma can prosecute crimes against Native American victims committed on Native American reservations if the defendant is not Native American.

The new ruling limits the scope of the 2020 landmark ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma which originally gave the federal government and tribal law enforcement jurisdiction over significant crimes involving tribal members or in "Indian country."

SCOTUS decided last year that the justices would not overturn the McGirt ruling, but would take up the Oklahoma v. Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta case's question of whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Native Americans in tribal land. Oklahoma courts since ruled that McGirt does not apply to past cases or convictions.

READ MORE: Oklahoma court rules McGirt decision doesn't apply to previous convictions

See the full opinion from Justice Brett Kavanaugh below:

Statements from various leaders came out after the decision was announced:

Attorney General John O'Connor

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.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.

“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.”

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton

“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,” he said. “Our focus remains on protecting our members, as well as all 4 million Oklahoma residents.

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,” Batton said. "As always, we will continue to work with law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, local and tribal level.”

Governor Kevin Stitt

“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.”

Muscogee (Creek) Nation

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.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum

“Today’s ruling provides greater clarity for the City of Tulsa as we carry out our most important responsibility: enforcement of the law.  The City entered an amicus brief in this case out of a desire to share the practical experience of the Tulsa Police Department and to better understand the Court’s interpretation of the McGirt decision, which impacts our role in protecting victims of crime. I want to thank the Court for providing greater clarity on this specific question, which will allow us to better serve all Tulsans.

We remain committed to working with the State of Oklahoma and the sovereign tribal nations who are our partners in building a safe city of opportunity for future generations. The Court has also reaffirmed that McGirt is the law of the land, and as governments existing to serve the people we have a responsibility to work together in developing new frameworks for collaboration that honor this reality.”

This is a developing story. We'll continue to update as we learn more.

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