State Watch

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 Gorsuch, 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 Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.

“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 Murphy, 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.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas Elena Kagan Muscogee (Creek) Nation Native American rights Neil Gorsuch Oklahoma Patrick Murphy Ruth Bader Ginsburg Samuel Alito Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court
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