SCOTUS Land Decision

PUBLISHED: 1:00 PM 10 Jul 2020
UPDATED: 5:19 PM 10 Jul 2020

Supreme Court Sends Oklahoma Into Chaos With “Tribal Land” Ruling?

Apparently, some say the ruling will throw into question hundreds of recent prosecutions, while others argue it's no big deal.

Many people wonder at the ruling. (Source: CSPAN YouTube Screenshot)

Yesterday, as the Supreme Court was handing off the decision about President Trump’s tax returns, another ruling was issued, which has many people wondering what the final outcome could be.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Neil Gorsuch, SCOTUS ruled that a large section of land around Tulsa, Oklahoma was part of the American Indian Reservation, and therefore, state prosecutors do not have the jurisdiction to pursue criminal cases against Native Americans in these parts of the state, including most of the second-largest city of Tulsa.

The case involved an American Indian who argued the state could not prosecute him because of crimes committed on reservation land belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

OPB reported:

The reservation once encompassed 3 million acres (12,100 square kilometers), including most of Tulsa.

The Supreme Court, with eight justices taking part, failed to reach a decision last term when it reviewed a federal appeals court ruling in a separate case that threw out a state murder conviction and death sentence. In that case, the appeals court said the crime occurred on land assigned to the tribe before Oklahoma became a state and Congress never clearly eliminated the Creek Nation reservation it created in 1866.

The case the justices decided Thursday involved 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for molesting a child. Oklahoma state courts rejected his argument that his case does not belong in Oklahoma courts and that federal prosecutors should instead handle his case.

McGirt could potentially be retried in federal court, as could Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe 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 to bleed to death on the side of a country road about 80 miles southeast of Tulsa.

Atlanta Journal Constitution reported:

“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever. … Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Gorsuch wrote in a decision joined by the court’s liberal members.

“In reaching our conclusion about what the law demands of us today, we do not pretend to foretell the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially ones that have gone unappreciated for so long. But it is unclear why pessimism should rule the day. With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its Tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners,” he wrote.

Oklahoma’s three U.S. attorneys quickly released a joint statement expressing confidence that “tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement will work together to continue providing exceptional public safety” under the ruling.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a former chief justice of the tribe’s Supreme Court, said the state’s argument that such a ruling would cause legal havoc in the state was overblown.

“All the sky-is-falling narratives were dubious at best,” Chaudhuri said. “This would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans committing crimes within the boundaries.

“This case didn’t change ownership of any land. It didn’t impact the prosecutions of non-Indians in any way. All it did was bring clarity to jurisdictional questions regarding the border, and it enhanced the Creek Nation’s ability as a sovereign nation to work with other sovereign interests to protect people and to work in common interests.”