Supreme Court will revisit dispute between Oklahoma, tribal leaders

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The Supreme Court will consider limiting a controversial 2020 decision that greatly expanded the amount of Indian land in Oklahoma and disrupted criminal prosecutions in the area, the justices announced Friday.

The court declined the state’s request to overturn its decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which sided with tribal leaders in finding that a large portion of land in the eastern part of the state qualifies as an Indian reservation

But the justices said they will consider a more limited question: “Whether a State has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country.”

[Oklahoma reels after Supreme Court ruling on Indian lands]

It would have been unusual for the court to accept a direct challenge of a precedent so fresh. But the McGirt decision was 5 to 4, with conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch joining the court’s four liberals to form a majority.

Since then, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been replaced by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, making a different outcome at least a possibility.

And Oklahoma said in its petition to the high court that the decision has produced something just short of chaos.

“No recent decision of this Court has had a more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State than McGirt v. Oklahoma,” the state wrote.

The court held in McGirt that part of the state once within the boundaries of the Creek Nation qualifies as Indian country for the purposes of prosecuting major crimes.

[Supreme Court says much of eastern Oklahoma remains Indian land]

Since then, state courts have reached the same conclusion regarding the remainder of the Five Tribes in Oklahoma, meaning “almost 2 million Oklahoma residents—the vast majority of whom are not Native American—suddenly live in Indian country for purposes of federal criminal jurisdiction,” the state wrote.

The state contends tribal and federal law enforcement is overwhelmed with the new responsibility, forcing victims to go through second trials or foregoing some prosecutions. “The reality is that the McGirt decision has hamstrung law enforcement in half of the state,” Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said in a statement.

Tribal leaders say the state’s response has bordered on hysteria and ignores the efforts made to conform with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the court was right to reject “a blatantly political request to overturn its McGirt decision.”

“Now that Governor Stitt’s fight against tribal sovereignty has once again come up short, we hope he will consider joining tribes, rather than undermining our efforts, so we can focus on what is best for our tribal nations and all Oklahomans,” Hoskin said.

The case at the Supreme Court involves Victor Castro-Huerta, who was convicted in state court of neglecting his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a tribal member who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction because the crime occurred in what is now considered tribal lands.

But a court filing from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said the case actually is an example of how the system works since McGirt. Castro-Huerta has been re-convicted in federal court and is awaiting sentencing, it said.

The case is Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta and will be argued in April.