Supreme Court says Oklahoma can prosecute crimes in ‘Indian Country’


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A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with officials in Oklahoma, limiting the reach of a 2020 decision that reclassified a large swath of the state as Indian land and disrupted criminal prosecutions.

In a 5-to-4 decision criticized by tribal leaders, the court said state officials have the authority to prosecute non-Indians for crimes against Native Americans on Indian land.

“The Court’s precedents establish that Indian country is part of a State’s territory and that, unless preempted, States have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian country,” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.

He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett.

Two years ago, the court said about 43 percent of Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa, remains an American Indian reservation. That decision, written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who dissented from Wednesday’s ruling, prevented state law enforcement from prosecuting Native Americans who commit crimes on Indian land.

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In his dissent Wednesday, Gorsuch said that the majority had misread history and that tribes retain their authority unless Congress intervenes.

“Truly, a more ahistorical and mistaken statement of Indian law would be hard to fathom,” wrote Gorsuch, who was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Tribes are not private organizations within state boundaries. Their reservations are not glorified private campgrounds. … Tribal sovereignty means that the criminal laws of the States ‘can have no force’ on tribal members within tribal bounds unless and until Congress clearly ordains otherwise,” he wrote.

The case involved the state prosecution of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American, who was convicted of severely neglecting his 5-year-old disabled stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Castro-Huerta appealed his 35-year sentence, saying in part that the state did not have the authority to prosecute him because the victim was Native American and the alleged crime took place in Indian territory.

While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued two related opinions that greatly increased the span of Indian country in Oklahoma and held that the state lacked authority to prosecute a Native American who had committed a crime in Indian country against a fellow Native American.

Oklahoma told the court that the shift to tribal and federal court after the 2020 ruling had forced the state to drop some prosecutions and some victims to go through second trials. Castro-Huerta subsequently pleaded guilty in federal court and accepted a seven-year sentence.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) called the ruling Wednesday a “pivotal moment” that would allow the state to prosecute non-Native Americans and to “protect Native victims.”

“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,” Stitt said in a statement.

In a statement, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said the Wednesday ruling is “an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Native people.”

“This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States,” the tribe said, adding that “public safety would be better served by expanding Tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within our reservation boundaries rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.”

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