The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that much of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes in a huge victory 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 approximately half of the state and most of the city of Tulsa belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
“Today we are asked whether the land promised by these treaties remains an Indian reservation for the purposes of federal criminal law,” Trump-appointed Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The decision could overturn state authority over much of the territory and prevent it from prosecuting tribal members accused of crimes on the reservation. Oklahoma may no longer be able to tax those who reside on creek land.
Gorsuch was joined in the majority by the four justices from the court’s liberal wing: 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.
“Today’s decision creates significant uncertainty for the state’s continued authority over any area that affects Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law,” he said. writes Roberts in his dissent. “None of this is justified.”
The Creek Tribe released a statement Thursday welcoming the decision.
“The Supreme Court today fulfilled the sacred promise of the United States to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation,” the statement read. “Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our sovereignty and our established territorial borders. We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure public safety is maintained within all Muscogee (Creek) Nation boundaries. »
The case involves Jimcy McGirt, a convicted rapist serving a thousand-year sentence in addition to a life sentence, who challenged his conviction on the grounds that the crime took place in Creek territory.
McGirt could now face a new trial in federal court.
Oklahoma, which was backed in the case by the Trump administration, argued that the disputed territory with the Creek had never been a reservation, and even if it had been, it had been dissolved there. a long time ago.
But Gorsuch wrote for the majority that it takes an act of Congress to dissolve a reservation and there is no evidence that he did so with Creek lands.
“Gathering the broad social consensus required to pass new legislation is a deliberately difficult task under our Constitution. Faced with this daunting task, Congress might sometimes wish that a troublesome reservation would simply disappear,” Gorsuch wrote. “But wishes don’t make laws, and sparing political branches the embarrassment of removing a reservation is not part of our constitutional prerogatives.”
Oklahoma said in a joint statement Thursday with the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations that they would submit a proposal to Congress to resolve open jurisdictional issues.
“The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy and all other offenders are brought to justice for the crimes with which they are charged,” 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 of self-government while affirming jurisdictional arrangements, procedures, laws and regulations that support the public safety, our economy and private property rights,” they continued. “We will continue our work, confident that we can achieve more together than any of us could alone.”
Updated at 12:55 p.m.