Supreme Court to review limits of Oklahoma tribes ruling
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide a question left open by its landmark 2020 ruling declaring that much of eastern Oklahoma is an Indian reservation. But the judges rejected a request to consider overturning the decision entirely.
The 2020 decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, ruled that Native Americans who commit crimes on the reservation, which includes much of Tulsa, cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement and must instead do face justice in tribal or federal courts.
The issue the court agreed to decide on Friday was whether those same limits applied to non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians on reservations.
The case concerns Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who was convicted of severely neglecting his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. In 2015, she was found dehydrated, emaciated and covered in lice and feces, weighing just 19 pounds.
Mr. Castro-Huerta, who is not an Indian, was prosecuted by state authorities, convicted in state court and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
After the McGirt decision, an Oklahoma appeals court overturned his conviction on the grounds that the crime took place in Indian Country. The appeals court relied on previous rulings that crimes committed on reservations by or against Indians could not be prosecuted by state authorities.
Federal prosecutors later filed charges against Mr. Castro-Huerta, and he pleaded guilty to child neglect in federal court. He has not yet been sentenced.
In asking the Supreme Court to rule on the case, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, No. 21-429, John M. O’Connor, Oklahoma attorney general, said the judges had “never outright asserted that the states had no authority to prosecute non-Indians.” for crimes under state law committed against Indians in Indian Country.
Lawyers for Mr. Castro-Huerta responded that the Supreme Court, lower courts and Congress have all said that crimes committed on reservations by or against Indians cannot be prosecuted by state authorities.
In his petition for review, Mr. O’Connor asked the Supreme Court to answer two questions: whether the McGirt decision should be overturned.
In its order granting the review on Friday, the Supreme Court said it would only answer the first question.
Writing for the majority in McGirt, which was decided by a 5-4 vote, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch said the court justified a commitment born out of an ugly history of forced removals and broken treaties.
“At the other end of the trail of tears was a promise,” he wrote, joined by what was then the liberal wing of four members of the court. “Forced from their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation was assured that their new lands in the West would be safe forever.”
Disagreeing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. predicted the decision would cause chaos.
“The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hampered and decades of past convictions may well be overturned,” he wrote. “On top of that, the court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in the majority, died a few months after the decision was delivered. Judge Amy Coney Barrett has since taken her seat, raising the possibility that the court is willing to reconsider its decision.
In urging judges to do so, Mr O’Connor wrote that “no recent decision of this court has had a more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American state than McGirt v. Oklahoma”. It has, he writes, “thrown Oklahoma’s criminal justice system into a state of emergency.”
Lawyers for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation told the judges that the state’s account of the consequences of the McGirt decision was “fiction rather than fact.”
“The United States, the nation, and local authorities are working together successfully to ensure there is no criminal justice crisis on the reservation,” they wrote.
They added that Oklahoma State is “confusing the court with a political branch, as its rulings can be overturned with the changing of the seasons.”