The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that non-Native Americans can be prosecuted for crimes committed on tribal land when the victim is Native American.
The 5-4 decision limited the high court’s ruling from 2020, which stated that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation. The first decision barred the state from prosecuting Native Americans accused of crimes committed on tribal lands that included most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city with a population of approximately 413,000 people.
A state court later ruled that the Supreme Court decision also barred the state from prosecuting anyone for crimes committed on tribal land if either the victim or the perpetrator was Native American. That would have given the federal government sole authority to prosecute such cases, and federal officials have admitted that they lack the resources to prosecute all crimes that have fallen under their jurisdiction.
However, the high court’s new decision stated that the state can also intervene when the only victims are tribal members.
“The State’s interest in protecting crime victims includes both Indian and non-Indian victims,” according to the statement “For the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote.
Following the 2020 decision, approximately 43 percent of Oklahoma is now considered Indian country, and the state’s ability to prosecute those crimes “has suddenly assumed immense importance,” wrote Kavanaugh.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a dissent joined by the court’s three liberal members that the decision “allows Oklahoma to intrude on a feature of tribal sovereignty recognized since the founding.”
The case highlighted the already strained relationship between Oklahoma’s Native tribes and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has fought to reclaim legal jurisdiction over tribal lands. Stitt is a Cherokee Nation citizen, the country’s largest Native American tribe by population, with approximately 400,000 members, 261,000 of whom live in Oklahoma. According to the Census Bureau, Native Americans make up just under 10% of Oklahoma’s nearly 4 million population.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote.
Stitt was “heartened” by the Supreme Court’s decision, which “reaffirmed that Indian country is part of a state, not separate from it.” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who supported the state in the case, said the ruling clarifies Tulsa’s legal jurisdiction. He promised to collaborate with the state and tribal nations, “our partners in building a safe city.”
The court, according to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., “ruled against legal precedent and the fundamental principles of congressional authority and Indian law.”” He stated that the court “”failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied Congress’ statutes, and accepted the ‘lawless disregard of Cherokee sovereignty,'” Gorsuch wrote in part.
The case arose from a state court decision to overturn Victor Castro-conviction, Huerta’s despite the fact that he is not Native American. Oklahoma prosecutors charged Castro-Huerta with malnourishment of his disabled 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Castro-Huerta has since pleaded guilty to federal child neglect in exchange for a seven-year prison sentence, though he has yet to be formally sentenced.
The Muscogee reservation was the subject of the Supreme Court case, but subsequent rulings upheld the historic reservations of other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw, and Seminole nations.
Stitt has previously clashed with tribal leaders over his desire to renegotiate expiring tribal gambling compacts. In lawsuits involving gambling, federal and state courts ruled against Stitt.
As part of a dispute with the tribes, Stitt decided not to renew hunting and fishing license compacts with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations last year.