Supreme Court justices hear Oklahoma appeal in tribal jurisdiction case

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in Oklahoma’s ongoing battle with Native American tribes over the state’s authority to prosecute those accused of crimes on Native American lands, following a 2020 Supreme Court ruling.

The court agreed earlier this year to consider limiting its 2020 McGirt decision, a decision the state says wreaked havoc in its courts.

The state call is in the case of Victor Castro-Huerta, who was charged with malnourishment of his 5-year-old stepdaughter and has since pleaded guilty to a federal charge of child neglect and is awaiting sentencing.

He was initially convicted in state court, but that conviction and his sentence were overturned due to how state courts interpreted the law following the McGirt decision. The state appealed with the strong backing of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and is the latest push on its dealings with the state’s tribal leaders.

In the 2020 case, the Supreme Court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma remained a Native American reservation. The ruling applied to the Muscogee reservation, but led to similar lower court rulings upholding the historic reservations of several other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw, and Seminole nations that cover almost the entire eastern half of the state. .

decisionwritten by Judge Neil Gorsuch, meant Oklahoma prosecutors lacked the authority to pursue criminal charges against Native American defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the second-largest city of the state with a population of approximately 413,000.

Stitt said during his State of the State address in February that “Oklahoma has been stripped of the power to prosecute crimes.”

The Supreme Court usually does not review its decisions so soon. But the state argued the crimes were not being investigated or prosecuted because federal authorities — who can bring criminal charges on tribal lands — are overwhelmed.

“The state will argue that it has the right to protect Indian victims in the Supreme Court this week,” state spokeswoman Carly Atchison said.

Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation, the state’s most populous tribe with about 261,000 citizens, believes Stitt is trying to strip tribal sovereignty after the Supreme Court in January denied the state’s request overthrow McGirt.

FILE – Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. speaks Dec. 3, 2021 in Tahlequah, Okla. The United States Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 in Oklahoma’s ongoing battle with Native Americans in what is known as the McGirt decision. (AP Photo/Michael Woods, File)

“I think his goal now is to reduce McGirt,” Hoskin said, calling it a 19th-century mindset toward the treatment of Native Americans.

FILE – Choctaw Nation Leader Gary Batton speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City, August 11, 2016. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear argument Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in the Oklahoma’s ongoing battle with Native Americans in what is called the McGirt shutdown. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams, File)

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton agreed, calling the state’s call and Stitt’s support for action an attack on tribal sovereignty.

“This strains our relationship…I like to think it’s a lack of education rather than a lack of understanding” of treaties between two sovereign governments, the United States and the Choctaw nation, said Batton said.

“It gets harder and harder as he doesn’t come to terms with history and what the United States has agreed to do and who we are as a Choctaw nation,” Batton said.

Last fall, the Intertribal Council of Five Civilized Tribes, made up of leaders from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations, rescinded a 2019 resolution commending and congratulating Stitt, a member of the Cherokee Nation, upon his election as governor.

Stitt and tribal leaders have previously clashed over Stitt’s desire to renegotiate tribal gaming pacts which he claimed to expire. Federal and state courts ruled against Stitt in gambling lawsuits.

Last year, Stitt decided not to renew hunting and fishing license contracts with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations amid an ongoing dispute between the tribes and the Republican governor.

Stitt lost support from Native American voters because of his actions, according to Hoskin.

“He absolutely, in my opinion, is the most anti-Native American governor in the history of the state,” Hoskin said. “I think his loss (for re-election) would be applauded by many tribal leaders, certainly me.”

Donelle Harder, Stitt’s re-election campaign manager, said Stitt had had disagreements “with a small number of senior tribal officials” but had good relations with the tribal citizens he met during his travels around the world. the state.

“I think every Oklahoman knows this is a critical conversation that needs to happen and that no group or organization should be dictating the future of 4 million Oklahomans,” Harder said.

After closing arguments, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor released the following statement.

“Today, the State of Oklahoma asked the United States Supreme Court to confirm that the state has the power to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in the eastern United States. ‘Oklahoma, which is now the expanded Indian country under the McGirt decision. The state has been prosecuting these criminals since 1907.

Right now we have two sets of rules when Indians are victimized, those that apply when the aggressor is not Indian and a different set of rules when the aggressor is Indian. On the ground in eastern Oklahoma, we have victims without justice and crimes without punishment.

The federal government is leaving thousands of tribal victims of crimes in eastern Oklahoma without justice, and as many criminals unprosecuted and free to victimize others in the state. This significantly harmed public safety in eastern Oklahoma.

Clearly, a victory for Oklahoma in this case is a victory for these Native American victims.

Regardless of the outcome, I will continue to reach out to leaders of Indian Nations to engage in constructive conversations in search of solutions that will benefit all Oklahomans.

I want to thank our outside attorney Kannon Shanmugam, Oklahoma Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani, and the entire team of attorneys representing Oklahoma for their countless hours of preparation and hard work. I am grateful for the support of Oklahoma sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys, the city of Tulsa, business groups like the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen’s Association, and Petroleum Alliance, and states such as Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Virginia, all of which have filed briefs in support of state criminal jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma.

Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. released this statement:

Today’s Supreme Court arguments reaffirmed what the tribes have always said: The State of Oklahoma has neither the facts nor the law on its side. The justices heard clear arguments that explain how the state’s claim to undermine tribal sovereignty is inconsistent with legal precedent, congressional intent and the foundations of Indian law.

Congress has been clear about the limits of state jurisdiction over our reservations, and Governor Stitt’s anti-tribal views do not change those facts. While the tribes have worked closely with our partners to fulfill our public safety responsibilities and provide protective cover for all residents of our reservation, it is unfortunate that the state has wasted time and resources to attack our rights and our sovereignty. We hope that the judges will rule on the side of collaboration and the law, and that the governor will finally choose to join us in achieving our common goals of public safety.

Oklahoma Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton released this statement:

“This case is now in the hands of the judges, and we hope they will obey the law and keep the United States to its promises, despite the state’s arguments based on spurious facts. The state’s claims according to which eastern Oklahoma descended into chaos have been definitively refuted and the criminals released following the McGirt decision have been indicted in federal or tribal court, or arraigned on other charges.

“Furthermore, asserts that McGirt would hurt local economies have also been proven wrong, according to a study to be published in the Yale Journal on Regulation.

“In Castro Huerta, we believe that the Supreme Court will faithfully interpret the law and uphold treaty agreements which stipulate that non-Indian offenders who victimize Choctaw members on tribal lands will be handed over to federal authorities for trial and punishment. As a tribe, we remain fully committed to cooperating with federal, state, local, and tribal partners to protect public safety and punish violators. »

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