Oklahoma reclaims some criminal jurisdiction over reservations in ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Oklahoma can resume prosecuting certain crimes involving Native Americans on the state’s six Indian reservations, narrowing the scope of its landmark McGirt ruling as federal prosecutors scramble strive to keep up with the workload.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said Oklahoma and other states share criminal jurisdiction with the federal government in Indian Country when the accused is a non-Indian and the victim is an Indian.
“This Court has long held that Indian country is part of a state, not separate from it,” the High Court said.
“Under the Constitution, states have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes within their jurisdiction, except where preempted by federal law or tribal self-governance principles. By default, states have criminal jurisdiction in the land Indian unless that jurisdiction is preempted. And that jurisdiction has not been preempted here.”
The decision was a major victory for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, which has been advocating for concurrent jurisdiction in Indian Country since the High Court ruled in 2020 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation n was never deleted.
The ruling — which was later extended to Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole reservations — meant that crimes committed by and against Native Americans could only be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts.
Although the state has prosecuted most crimes involving Native Americans since the state’s inception, the McGirt decision and affirmation of the other five reservations have limited district attorneys in most of eastern Oklahoma to crimes in which the accused and victims were not Indians.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned several convictions of non-Indians whose crimes were committed against Indians on reservations.
The state attorney general’s office — first under former attorney general Mike Hunter, then under current attorney general John O’Connor — argued that Congress never explicitly barred states from prosecuting crimes in Indian country with non-Indian defendants and Indian victims.
Wednesday’s decision came in the case of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, a Mexican national who was convicted in Tulsa County of neglecting his five-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, in point that she was hospitalized. .
Castro-Huerta’s conviction was overturned by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals after McGirt because the girl is Native American and the crime occurred on a reservation.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling means the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals must take up the case and enforce the new ruling.
Several similar cases pending in the High Court have also been referred to the Oklahoma Court of Appeals.
The decision will likely mean some relief for U.S. prosecutors’ offices in Tulsa and Muskogee, which have been overwhelmed since becoming responsible for crimes involving Native Americans across much of eastern Oklahoma.
The Justice Department told Congress in April that it could not prosecute most nonviolent crimes committed on reservations. For a second year, the department is seeking tens of millions of dollars to hire more prosecutors, FBI agents, DEA agents, U.S. marshals and others essential to expanding the federal system of criminal justice in the eastern half of the state.
Now state prosecutors can take on some of the cases with non-Indian defendants, though the division of labor is unclear.
Non-Indians generally cannot be prosecuted in tribal courts, except for specific offenses under the Violence Against Women Act. And major crimes such as murder and rape are prosecuted by US attorneys because of sentence limits in tribal courts.
The city of Tulsa, which sided with the state in the Castro-Huerta case, told judges that city police “referred thousands of cases to federal prosecutors and tribal authorities – but only a tiny fraction of these cases have been prosecuted in any meaningful way.Federal authorities refuse to prosecute all but the most serious crimes, and tribal authorities lack the resources to prosecute many of the cases that come before them.
The five tribes – the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, (Muscogee) Creeks and Seminoles – opposed Oklahoma’s position, saying it “threatens the nations’ exercise of tribal self-governance to enhance security and welfare on their reservations, and resuscitates the threat of state encroachment on tribal sovereignty that the New Homelands of Nations were created to prohibit.
The Biden administration also opposed the state of Oklahoma in the case, arguing that Congress must grant specific authority to the state to prosecute cases involving Indians in Indian Country and had failed to do so. done with Oklahoma.