Nearly half of Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, in a case that could have major consequences for how some crimes are prosecuted in the state.
In the 5-4 decision written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court held that only tribes and the federal government can prosecute Native Americans for certain crimes committed in a large chunk of the eastern half of the state.
The decision effectively erases Oklahoma’s claims to jurisdiction over tribal members there.
“Today, we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” wrote Gorsuch, who joined the court's four liberals. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said in a statement Thursday: “This country was founded on indigenous land and the United States government signed binding treaties with Tribes, but the federal government’s actions demonstrate a lack of respect and breach of those agreements made with Native Nations.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision affirms the obligation to honor treaties and sets an important precedent to affirm the rights Tribes have to lands that belong to them,” the statement said. “As we move forward addressing longstanding broken promises, this decision will serve as a marker to ensure the federal government honors its promises to Native Nations.”
In 1997, the state of Oklahoma convicted Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Seminole Nation, for the rape of a 4-year-old girl on the Creek reservation. McGirt was sentenced to life in prison. But in 2018, he filed a petition in an Oklahoma court for post-conviction relief.
McGirt argued that the state did not have the authority to prosecute him, because under the 1887 Major Crimes Act, certain “major” crimes such as murder or rape committed by Native Americans on established reservations are subject to tribal instead of federal jurisdiction.
During oral arguments in May, justices debated whether Congress in 1907 used imprecise language that failed to disestablish 1866 boundaries of the Creek reservation.
The court on Thursday held that Congress never explicitly dissolved it. A ruling in favor of Oklahoma would enable the state to strip away tribal sovereignty, said the majority.
"(This would) allow States and courts to finish work Congress has left undone, usurp the legislative function in the process, and treat Native American claims of statutory right as less valuable than others,” wrote Gorsuch.
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by three other justices, argued that Congress did disestablish the reservation, and that the majority’s decision “has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”
Thursday’s decision means Oklahoma prosecutors lack authority to pursue criminal cases against Native American defendants in a region that is home to over 1.8 million people and includes most of Tulsa, the second-largest city.
State solicitor general Mithun Mansinghani warned in May that a ruling against Oklahoma, like the one handed down Thursday, could require the release of more than 1,700 inmates and throw the state’s criminal just system into chaos.
The court was left divided in a similar case in 2017. An Oklahoma court sentenced Patrick Murphy, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation man, to death for the 1999 murder of a fellow tribe member. He argued that his case should have been tried in a federal court.
Gorsuch recused himself from considering Murphy's argument due to prior involvement with that case when he served on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was left pending, with the other eight justices presumably deadlocked.
On Thursday, based on McGirt’s case, the Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court decision that said Congress never disestablished the Creek Reservation.
Both McGirt and Murphy could be retried in federal court, but Murphy would not face the death penalty in federal court for a crime in which prosecutors said he mutilated the victim and left him to bleed to death on the side of a country road about 128 kilometers southeast of Tulsa.
Julie Taboh contributed to this report. Some information for this report is from The Associated Press.