The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that much of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, a move that state and federal officials say could plunge Oklahoma into chaos.
The court decision 5-4, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, means that Oklahoma prosecutors do not have the power to initiate criminal proceedings against Native American defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include the major part of Tulsa, the second largest city in the state.
âAt the end of the Path of Tears, there was a promise. Forced from their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation was given assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever, âhe wrote.
âToday we are asked whether the lands promised by these treaties remain an Indian reserve for federal criminal law purposes.
“Because Congress did not say otherwise, we are keeping the government at its word,” Gorsuch wrote in a decision joined by liberal members of the court.
The court ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions handed down by local prosecutors. But Gorsuch suggested the optimism.
âIn coming to our conclusion about what the law requires of us today, we make no claim to predict the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially those that have gone unrecognized. for so long.
Landmark decision: Neil Gorsuch joined the four Liberals in court in ruling a case brought by convicted child molester Jimcy McGirt, who successfully claimed he was not subject to prosecution by the ‘State because the Treaties of the Trail of Tears era were still in effect
Redraw the map: The Supreme Court ruling again makes the darker shaded areas of Indian tribal lands. The case used 19th-century maps which the judges said were not overtaken by Congress
âBut we don’t know why pessimism should reign. Over time, Oklahoma and its tribes have proven that they can work together successfully as partners, âhe wrote.
The three US attorneys from Oklahoma quickly issued a joint statement expressing confidence that “tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement agencies will work together to continue to provide exceptional public safety” under the ruling.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, Ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and former chief justice of the tribe’s Supreme Court, said the state’s argument that such a move would wreak legal havoc in the state was overblown.
âAll of the accounts of the Falling Sky were dubious at best,â Chaudhuri said. âThis would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans committing crimes within borders.
âThis affair did not change the ownership of any land. This had no bearing on the prosecution of non-Indians.
“All he did was clarify the jurisdictional issues regarding the border, and this strengthened the ability of the Creek Nation as a sovereign nation to work with other sovereign interests to protect people and to work. in common interests. “
Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a Comanche Nation citizen and lawyer specializing in tribal law, said the decision’s short-term implications are largely limited to the criminal context and that serious crimes committed by Native Americans in parts of it Eastern Oklahoma will be subject to federal jurisdiction.
âIn the long term, outside of the criminal context, there may be minor changes in civil law,â he said. âMajority opinion points to aid for homeland security, historic preservation, schools, highways, clinics, housing and nutrition programs as possible changes. The Creek Nation will also have greater jurisdiction over child protection cases involving members of the tribe.
The case, which was argued over the phone in May due to the coronavirus pandemic, revolved around an appeal from an American Indian who claimed the state courts did not have the power to try him for a crime committed on reserve land owned by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The reserve once encompassed 3 million acres (12,100 square kilometers), including most of Tulsa.
Bitter story: Judge Gorsuch said the horrors of the Trail of Tears, seen in this 1942 performance by Robert Lindeux, came with a “promise” of Indian control over land, and the law must be upheld. height of this promise
The Supreme Court, with eight participating judges, failed to come to a decision last year when it reviewed a federal appeals court decision in a separate case that dismissed a murder conviction and a dead.
In that case, the appeals court said the crime was committed on land allotted to the tribe before Oklahoma became a state and Congress never clearly wiped out the Creek Nation reservation it had created in 1866.
The case the judges decided on Thursday involved Jimcy McGirt, 71, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for assaulting a child.
Oklahoma state courts have rejected his argument that his case does not belong to the state courts of Oklahoma and that federal prosecutors should deal with his case instead.
McGirt could potentially be retried in federal court, as could Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of murdering another tribal member in 1999 and sentenced to death.
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 bleeding to death on the side of a country road at around 80 miles southeast of Tulsa.
Neither Murphy nor McGirt should be released from prison, but they will likely be charged in federal court, said Michael McBride, president of the Indian Law & Gaming Practice for Oklahoma City-based law firm Crowe & Dunlevy.
âFrom a practical standpoint for Mr. McGirt, the US lawyer will likely stay his release and there will be an indictment from a federal grand jury very quickly,â McBride said. âNeither will see the light of day, most likely. “
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 resolve any issues. unresolved jurisdiction raised by the decision.
“Nations and state are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy and all other offenders are brought to justice for the crimes for which they are accused,” the statement said. “We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.”