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Supreme Court won't overrule McGirt decision, will argue crimes in Indian country

Supreme Court
Posted at 10:45 AM, Dec 13, 2021
and last updated 2022-01-21 23:37:37-05

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court won't take up the question to overturn its McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, the court announced Friday.

However, the court did decide Friday that it will 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 Indians in Indian Country.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt says he's pleased with the decision.

“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.”

The Cherokee Nation is pleased the Supreme Court chose not to hear arguments on the other aspect of the filing which looked at overturning the original McGirt decision.

“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.

Castro-Huerta was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but the conviction was thrown out based on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals' interpretation of the McGirt ruling.

The State of Oklahoma filed a petition in September asking for further discussions about the 2020 ruling. They are asking the Court to reconsider the McGirt decision or narrow it so that it does not apply to convicted criminals like Castro-Huerta, who is a non-Native American but harmed a Native American victim.

Oklahoma courts have ruled McGirt does not apply to past cases or convictions.

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

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation released the following statement after Friday'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."

As it stands, the landmark case determined most of eastern Oklahoma is still considered tribal land. It changed the jurisdiction of criminal cases on that land or if it involved Native American individuals. This meant taking the prosecution of crimes on that land from local authorities and handing it to federal authorities.

Multiple petitions have been filed by the state of Oklahoma and current Attorney General John O'Connor to overturn McGirt. These petitions were written based on a report saying fewer than 20 percent of nearly 1,500 cases referred by the DA's office had indictments.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the court's decision to hear the state question was a positive step. He said his office is better equipped to handle the cases.

“Anything that I can do to help the prosecution of people who seemingly are getting away with some of these crimes, I want to be able to do," Kunzweiler said. "I want to be able to protect our community.”

READ MORE: McGirt report shows impact of decision on federal, tribal agencies

Tribes have spoken out against overturning the decision, including the Cherokee Nation. They said the state's petitions have been filled with errors, mostly in support of the state, and the petitions don't rely on correct information but rather unsupported anecdotes.

The tribe says the report also only looked at cases filed before McGirt applied to the Cherokee reservation so its conclusions could be misleading to the Court.

The Cherokee Nation also argues that McGirt has enhanced their justice system with additional funding and jobs, as well as providing resources and support to victims.

While it prepares to go to court again, Chief Hoskin said they'll continue building up their criminal justice system. He said they plan to hire more law enforcement, grow their attorney general's office and put resources into victim services.

“What matters is whether we have a criminal justice system that keeps people safe, that’s fair, that puts a blanket of comfort around victims," Chief Hoskin said. "It doesn’t matter whether it’s the state or federal government or the Cherokee Nation, we all need to work towards that."

Ahead of the conference, Muscogee Nation's Chief David Hill released a statement about the state's attempts to overturn the McGirt ruling. A portion of it reads:

The U.S. Supreme Court's McGirt v. Oklahoma decision affirming the existence of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation is a landmark ruling that recognizes the sanctity and durability of U.S. treaties that assure tribal sovereignty. But before the ink was dry on this monumental decision, politicians began pressing the Supreme Court to reverse itself...

Stepping in now would damage the Court, condone bad behavior by the State, and rob Oklahomans of the opportunity for more safety and prosperity.

READ MORE: Cherokee Nation files brief, responds to attempts on overturning McGirt ruling

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