Supreme Court Ruling: Nearly Half Of Oklahoma Remains “Indian Country”

by Phil Cross

WASHINGTON D.C. – The United States government never dissolved the reservation for the Creek Nation and major crimes committed in Indian Country require a federal, not state, trial, the United States Supreme Court said Thursday. In a 5-4 decision, the nation’s high court not only reversed a criminal conviction, but put into question legal jurisdiction of nearly half of Oklahoma.

“Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion of McGirt vs. Oklahoma holding that only Congress could dissolve the reservation and treat with the Creek Nation.

The case came to the court because convicted child rapist, Jimcy McGirt, argued he should not have been tried in Oklahoma state court. McGirt said because he was a member of a Native American tribe and his crime was committed on land originally assigned to the Creek Nation his case should have been sent to federal court.

The appeal is similar to that of Patrick Murphy, an Oklahoma death-row inmate who challenged his conviction on similar legal grounds.

Joining the court’s four liberal justices, Gorsuch dismissed Oklahoma’s legal arguments which said an adverse ruling threatened a shut down of the state’s criminal justice system and could be catastrophic in other criminal and civil law impacting not just the Creek Nation, but almost all of Eastern Oklahoma, which was originally assigned to the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

Gorsuch argued there could be legal fallout from the court ruling either way. “In any event, the magnitude of a legal wrong is no reason to perpetuate it,” Gorsuch wrote.

Oklahoma’s five congressional members issued a joint statement about the landmark ruling.

“Today, the Supreme Court provided a long-awaited ruling on McGirt v. Oklahoma on an issue concerning the Five Tribes of Oklahoma and all Oklahomans. We are reviewing the decision carefully and stand ready to work with both tribal and state officials to ensure stability and consistency in applying law that brings all criminals to justice. Indeed, no criminal is ever exempt or immune from facing justice, and we remain committed to working together to both affirm tribal sovereignty and ensure safety and justice for all Oklahomans.”

In response to the ruling, Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office released a statement which said the state and tribes are working on a path forward.

“The State, the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations have made substantial progress toward an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice addressing and resolving any significant jurisdictional issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma,” Hunter’s statement said.

“The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused. We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma,” Hunter said his officials and tribal leaders were committed to implementing “a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights.”

“We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone,” the statement said.

You can read the entire Supreme Court opinion by clicking here.

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