The United States Supreme Court has ruled that Oklahoma state officials have the right to prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes perpetrated against Native Americans on their own lands.
The court issued the decision on Wednesday, narrowing a 2020 ruling that reclassified large parts of the state as Native American areas, throwing the criminal prosecution into disarray.
The 5-4 decision was criticized by tribal leaders.
For the majority of the court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote: “The precedents of the Court establish that Indian Country is part of the territory of a State and that, unless preempted, the States have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian Territory.
Justice Kavanaugh was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.
The court ruled in 2020 that 43% of the state, including Tulsa, was still a Native American reservation. That decision was written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, who disagreed with the ruling released Wednesday.
The 2020 ruling said Oklahoma law enforcement must be prevented from prosecuting Native Americans who violate the law on Native lands.
Justice Gorsuch wrote in his Wednesday dissent that the majority of the court misunderstood the story and that the tribes still had authority over the lands if Congress did not intervene.
Justice Gorsuch was joined in his dissent by the court’s three liberals – Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Retired Judge Breyer will be replaced on the court Thursday by Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“Really, a more ahistorical and erroneous statement of Indian law would be difficult to comprehend,” Judge Gorsuch wrote. “Tribes are not private organizations within state borders. Their reservations are not glorified private campgrounds. …Tribal sovereignty means that state criminal laws “can have no force” over tribal members within tribal boundaries unless and until Congress clearly decides otherwise.
The case involved Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American who was prosecuted for neglecting his disabled stepdaughter, 5, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Mr. Castro-Huerta appealed after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, arguing in part that the state lacked the power to prosecute him because the five-year-old child was Native American and because the crime whose it is accused occurred on Native American Land.
The defendant’s appeal was pending when the court issued two rulings expanding Native American territory in the state and ruling that Oklahoma had no right to prosecute a Native American who committed a crime against another Native American. on Native American land, The Washington Post reported.
Oklahoma said the change in tribal and federal court following the 2020 ruling meant some lawsuits were dropped and some victims had to face a second trial.
Mr. Castro-Huerta later pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to seven years.
The state’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said Wednesday’s ruling was a “pivotal moment” that would allow the state to prosecute non-Native Americans and “protect Native victims.”
“Justice has been delayed and denied to thousands of Indigenous victims in our state for no reason other than their race. Now Oklahoma law enforcement can help uphold and enforce the law the same way we have for more than a century,” Stitt said.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation said in a statement that Wednesday’s decision is “an alarming setback for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Indigenous criminals commit crimes against Indigenous people.”
“This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States,” the tribe added.
“Public safety would be better served by expanding tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within the boundaries of our reservations rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands “, they said.