Supreme Court rules that large swath of Oklahoma belongs to Indian reservation

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a large swath of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes in a huge win for a reservation that challenged the state's authority to prosecute crimes on its land.

In the 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that the disputed area covering roughly half of the state and most of the city of Tulsa belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

"Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law," Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchNeil Gorsuch's terrifying paragraph What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? The Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion MORE, a Trump appointee, wrote for the majority. "Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word."


The ruling could upend the state's authority over much of the land and restrict it from prosecuting tribal members who are accused of crimes on the reservation. Oklahoma may no longer be able to tax those who reside on the Creek's land.

Gorsuch was joined in the majority by the four justices on the liberal wing of the court: Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems press drillers over methane leaks Supreme Court denies lobster fishers' bid to halt environmental protections What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? MORE, Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader Ginsburg Women of Leadership Award given to Queen Elizabeth What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? The Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion MORE, Elena KaganElena KaganKlobuchar says 'best way' to protect abortion rights is to codify Roe v. Wade into law Potential Biden Supreme Court pick joins fray over Trump Jan. 6 subpoena Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorJuan Williams: GOP infighting is a gift for Democrats What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justices Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoNeil Gorsuch's terrifying paragraph Five revealing quotes from Supreme Court abortion case  The Supreme Court's criminal justice blind spot MORE, Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump considered withdrawing Kavanaugh nomination over beer comments, being 'too apologetic': Meadows book GOP Sen. Braun says abortion laws should be left up to states Neil Gorsuch's terrifying paragraph MORE and Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasNeil Gorsuch's terrifying paragraph Roberts and Roe: The Supreme Court considers a narrow question on abortion Five revealing quotes from Supreme Court abortion case  MORE.

"The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law," Roberts wrote in his dissent. "None of this is warranted." 

The Creek tribe released a statement Thursday hailing the decision.

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation," the statement reads. "Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries. We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that public safety will be maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”


The case concerns Jimcy McGirt, a convicted rapist serving a thousand years on top of a life sentence in prison, who challenged his conviction on the grounds that the crime took place on Creek territory.

McGirt may now face a new trial in federal court.

Oklahoma, which was backed in the case by the Trump administration, argued that the territory disputed with the Creek had never been a reservation, and even if it had, it was dissolved long ago.

But Gorsuch wrote for the majority that it takes an act of Congress to dissolve a reservation and there's no evidence that it did that with the Creek's land.

"Mustering the broad social consensus required to pass new legislation is a deliberately hard business under our Constitution. Faced with this daunting task, Congress sometimes might wish an inconvenient reservation would simply disappear," Gorsuch wrote. "But wishes don’t make for laws, and saving the political branches the embarrassment of disestablishing a reservation is not one of our constitutionally assigned prerogatives."


Oklahoma said in a joint statement Thursday with the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations they would put forth a proposal to Congress to resolve open questions about jurisdiction.

"The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick MurphyPatrick Erin MurphyFormer Cambodian prime minister Norodom Ranariddh dies at 77 US condemns teen's jailing in Cambodia over social media posts What happened to Marco Rubio, Time mag's 'Republican Savior' of 2013? MORE, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused," they said. "We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.

"The Nations and the State are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights," they continued. "We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone."

Updated at 12:55 p.m.