By Dustan Heistand
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday narrowed the impact of the historic 2020 ruling that restored reservations for six of the state’s Native American tribes.The Court’s decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta is the latest of a string of controversial rulings this term. In a 5-4 decision, the Court determined that the state can prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on tribal land when the victim is Native.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta is an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Native people” the Muscogee Nation said in a statement. “It hands jurisdictional responsibility in these cases to the State, which during its long…history of illegal jurisdiction on our reservation, routinely failed to deliver justice for Native victims.”
In siding with Oklahoma, the decision written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh determined that no law prohibits states from having concurrent jurisdiction and that Congress does not need to expressly grant that power. A lack of Congress’ need to expressly grant power to validate a ruling directly contradicted the rationale used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to seek an abortion.
Governor Kevin Stitt celebrated the Supreme Court decision as a victory for Oklahoma.“For two years, as a fourth generation Oklahoman, member of the Cherokees, and Governor of the state of Oklahoma, I have been fighting for equal protection under the law for all citizens,” said Stitt. “Today our efforts proved worthwhile and the Court upheld that Indian country is part of a State, not separate from it.”
The state’s crusade to narrow the impact of the McGirt case, which held that Native Americans charged with a crime on tribal land must be prosecuted in federal court, has fundamentally altered the over a century-long understanding of how criminal jurisdiction of non-Natives on tribal land nationwide.
The nation’s more than 500 Native American tribes saw the decision as a direct assault on their power.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today is an attack on tribal sovereignty and the hard-fought progress of our ancestors to exercise our inherent sovereignty over our own territories,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, Oklahoma’s longest serving Native leader, agreed.“The Supreme Court's decision in Castro-Huerta is unsettling to criminal justice administration throughout the Western United States,” he said. “This ruling does not change our sovereignty, and the Chickasaw Nation will continue to administer justice programs within our boundaries.”Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who less than two months ago ordered the Oklahoma state flag to be removed from tribal property only to relent, called for Stitt to sit down with the state’s tribes.
“We hope that with these legal questions behind us, Governor Stitt will finally lay his anti-tribal agenda to rest and come to the table to move forward with us – for the sake of Oklahomans and public safety,” Hoskin said.
While Stitt celebrated the ruling, Mayor G.T. Bynum of the City of Tulsa, a city that primarily resides on Native reservations, said he believes that a collaborative future between state and sovereign tribal nations is necessary.
“We remain committed to working with the State of Oklahoma and the sovereign tribal nations who are our partners in building a safe city of opportunity for future generations,” said Bynum. “The Court has also reaffirmed that McGirt is the law of the land, and as governments existing to serve the people we have a responsibility to work together in developing new frameworks for collaboration that honor this reality.”
But expanded funding for tribal police and courts has been slow to make its way to the state’s tribes.
Shortly after the court’s ruling, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R, Moore) proposed an amendment to the appropriations bill now making its way through Congress to bring attention to the burden of funding that has impacted Tribal Nations due to the McGirt decision. Currently, at least $62 million has been allocated in federal funds to support expanded public safety and justice on tribal lands, although it has yet to be dispersed.
The court’s verdict in Castro-Huerta demonstrates the impact of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s replacement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling Ginsburg was in the five-justice majority along with Justices Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. Barrett flipped the court with Castro-Huerta just as she did with Roe v. Wade.
Gorsuch wasted no time in voicing his displeasure with the Court’s decision in his dissent.“Where this Court once stood firm, today it wilts,” Gorsuch stated. “Where our predecessors refused to participate in one State’s unlawful power grab at the expense of the Cherokee, today’s Court accedes to another’s. One can only hope the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this Nation’s promises even as we have failed today to do our own.”
Gaylord News is a Washington-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories by Gaylord News go to GaylordNews.net.