U.S. Supreme Court backs Oklahoma, narrows McGirt scope
By John Dobberstein, Editor
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the state of Oklahoma can prosecute crimes against Native American victims committed on Native American reservations if the defendant is not Native American.
The new ruling limits the scope of the 2020 landmark ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which originally gave the federal government and tribal law enforcement jurisdiction over significant crimes involving tribal members or in “Indian country.”
SCOTUS decided in 2021 that justices would not overturn the McGirt ruling, but would take up the Oklahoma v. Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta case's question of whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Native Americans in tribal land.
Oklahoma courts have ruled McGirt does not apply to past cases or convictions.
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court stood up for the safety of Oklahomans of Native American heritage in eastern Oklahoma,” said Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor in a statement. “The Supreme Court recognized Oklahoma’s sovereignty and jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in eastern Oklahoma.
“Federal prosecutors are only prosecuting one in four felony referrals from law enforcement officers in eastern Oklahoma,” he continued. “Now state prosecutors can take up the slack and get back to what we have been doing for 113 years.
“This decision significantly limits the impact of McGirt. It vindicates my office’s years-long effort to protect all Oklahomans — Indians and non-Indians alike — from the lawlessness produced by the McGirt decision. While we still have a long road ahead of us to fix all of the harms our State has experienced as a consequence of McGirt, this is an important first step in restoring law and order in our great State.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt said Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling, “is a clear victory for all four million Oklahomans, the state of Oklahoma and the rule of law.
“Since the Court’s 2020 McGirt decision, federal prosecutors have declined thousands of cases like Castro-Huerta, a non-Native who monstrously abused his 5-year-old Native stepdaughter. Justice has been delayed and denied to thousands of Native victims in our state for no reason other than their race. Now Oklahoma law enforcement can help uphold and enforce the law equally, as we have done for over a century.”
In a statement, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said the decision, “ruled against legal precedent and the basic principles of Congressional authority and Indian law.
“During arguments, Justice Gorsuch asked if the Court would ‘wilt today because of a social media campaign’ – it is unfortunate that the answer appears to be yes. The dissent today did not mince words – the Court failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied Congress’s statutes, and accepted the ‘lawless disregard of the Cherokee’s sovereignty.’ ”
Hoksins added the Supreme Court’s ruling, “does not diminish our commitment to meeting our public safety responsibilities and to protecting Oklahomans on our reservations and across the state. Tribal and federal jurisdiction remain unchanged by this decision, but the need to work together on behalf of Oklahomans has never been more clear.
“Also unchanged is the affirmation of our reservation and our sovereignty. As we enter a chapter of concurrent jurisdiction, tribes will continue to seek partnership and collaboration with state authorities while expanding our own justice systems.”