The Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on Thursday, affirming Native American rights in Oklahoma.
What We Know:
- The Supreme Court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma falls within an Indian reservation, a decision that could reshape the criminal justice system in the area by preventing state authorities from prosecuting offenses there that involve Native Americans.
- The 5-to-4 decision marks one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades. It could have far-reaching implications for the people who live across what the court affirmed was Indian Country. The lands include much of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-biggest city.
- The case covered the United States government’s long history of brutal removals and broken treaties with Indigenous tribes. It also grappled with whether lands of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had remained a reservation after Oklahoma became a state.
- The decision puts in doubt hundreds of state convictions of Native Americans and could change the handling of prosecutions across a vast portion of the state. Lawyers also began examining whether it had broader implications for taxing, zoning, and other government functions. Many of the specific impacts will be determined by negotiations between state and federal authorities and five Native American tribes in Oklahoma.
- Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who has sided with tribes in previous cases, joined the court’s more liberal members to form the majority. Gorsuch said that Congress had granted the Creek a reservation and that the United States needed to abide by its promises. “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
- Muscogee leaders hailed the decision as a hard-fought victory that clarified the status of their lands. The tribe said it would work with state and federal law enforcement authorities to coordinate public safety within the reservation. “This is a historic day,” Principal Chief David Hill said in an interview. “This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.”
- The court’s decision means that Indigenous people who commit crimes on the eastern Oklahoma reservation, which includes much of Tulsa, cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement, and must instead face justice in tribal or federal courts. If a major crime is committed within the boundaries of reservations, it must be prosecuted in federal court rather than state court, if a Native American is involved. Less serious crimes involving Native Americans on American Indian land will be handled in tribal courts. This arrangement is already common in Western states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana.
- Many past court decisions are expected to resurface as they may now be considered wrongful convictions because the state lacked jurisdiction. A number of criminal defendants who have been convicted in the past will now have grounds to challenge their convictions, arguing that the state never had jurisdiction to try them.
- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., on the dissenting side, warned that the court’s decision would wreak havoc and confusion on Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. “The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “On top of that, the court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”
- Experts in Indian law said that Roberts’ concerns are unwarranted, saying that the decision’s effects would be more muted and would change little for non-Natives who live in the three-million-acre area of Oklahoma that the court declared to be a reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “Not one inch of land changed hands today,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador for the Creek Nation. “All that happened was clarity was brought to potential prosecutions within Creek Nation.” This case concerned jurisdiction, not land ownership.
- Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s attorney general, said in a statement that the state and the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations were working on an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice addressing jurisdictional issues raised by the decision. “We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone,” he said.
This decision could have far-reaching implications on tribes beyond the reservation boundaries in eastern Oklahoma in regards to reservation land and jurisdiction.