By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling on Friday, Jan. 21 declining to overturn the McGirt decision from 2020 – a move that tribal leaders are hailing as a victory for sovereignty. McGirt stated that the United States Congress never dissolved the reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, therefore, a large swath of eastern Oklahoma was deemed under the jurisdiction of several federal tribes, respective to their own borders, including the Muscogee, Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Quapaw Nation, and Seminole Nation.
Friday’s ruling came out of a September 2020 petition of certiorari filed by the State of Oklahoma involving the case of Manuel Castro-Huerta, a non-Indian who was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for the neglect of a minor who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Oklahoma State of Appeals threw out Castro-Huerta’s conviction based on the McGirt ruling.
In its ruling, the SCOTUS also stated they will tackle a question brought up in Oklahoma’s petition – “whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian Country”. That hearing is set for April.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement, “I am encouraged that the Supreme Court has decided to address whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian Country. The fallout of the McGirt decision has been destructive. Criminals have used this decision to commit crimes without punishment. Victims of crime, especially Native victims, have suffered by being forced to relive their worst nightmare in a second tribal or having justice elude them completely.”
He added, “The reality is that the McGirt decision has hamstrung law enforcement in half of the state. Oklahoma is a law and order state, and I was elected to protect all four million Oklahomans, regardless of their race or heritage. I will not stop fighting to ensure we have one set of rules to guarantee justice and equal protection under the law for all citizens.”
Tribal leaders applauded SCOTUS’ recent decision.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement, “The Cherokee Nation celebrates the Supreme Court’s rejection of a blatantly political request to overturn its McGirt decision. With this rejection of the state’s request in this case, the court affirms its decision in McGirt. I am proud of the Cherokee Nation’s success over the past year and a half expanding our justice system in record speed and fighting for public safety, but it would have been more effective had the governor chosen to come to the table from the start.”
He continued, “Now that Governor Stitt’s fight against tribal sovereignty has once again come up short, we hope he will consider joining tribes, rather than undermining our efforts so we can focus on what is best for our tribal nations and all Oklahomans.”
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill discussed what’s next stating, “The court will separately consider an Indian law issue unrelated to reservation status: whether a state maintains authority to prosecute a non-Indian who commits a crime against an Indian in Indian Country. Regardless of the outcome, the Nation will continue to work with state, local, and federal partners to ensure that the public is protected on the Cherokee Nation’s reservation.”
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation released the following statement, “It is great news for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation that the U.S. Supreme Court in its order today declined to consider overturning the McGirt ruling that affirms our reservation and sovereignty. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation will continue its vigorous engagement in the judicial process in support of our sovereignty and public safety.”
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said in a statement, “While the Supreme Court plans to address some of the effects of McGirt, today’s decision correctly recognizes both settled law and tribal sovereignty. We thank the justices for clearly establishing their ruling in McGirt will not be reconsidered at this time. As a Nation, we will continue doing everything we can to protect our citizens and our neighbors. We hope Oklahoma’s government officials will now turn their attention to cooperation, rather than conflict.”