US top court expands state power over Native land in Oklahoma

The state can prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on tribal land when the victim is Native, the United States Supreme Court rules.

Supreme Court
The decision scales back a ruling from 2020 that said a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native territory [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

The US Supreme Court has ruled that Oklahoma can prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on tribal land when the victim is Native American.

The five-to-four decision on Wednesday cut back on the high court’s ruling from 2020 that said a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native territory.

The first decision left the state unable to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes on tribal lands that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city with a population of about 413,000.

A state court later ruled that the Supreme Court decision also stripped the state of its ability to prosecute anyone for crimes committed on tribal land if either the victim or perpetrator is Native American.

That would have left the federal government with sole authority to prosecute such cases, and federal officials had acknowledged that they lack the resources to prosecute all the crimes that have fallen to them.

But the high court’s new ruling said the state also can step in when the victims are tribal members.

“The State’s interest in protecting crime victims includes both Indian and non-Indian victims,” conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court.

Since the 2020 decision, about 43 percent of Oklahoma is now considered “Indian country”, and the issue of the state’s ability to prosecute those crimes “has suddenly assumed immense importance”, Kavanaugh wrote.

In a dissent joined by the court’s three liberal members, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the decision “allows Oklahoma to intrude on a feature of tribal sovereignty recognized since the founding”.

The case highlighted the already strained relationship between Native tribes in Oklahoma and Republican Governor Kevin Stitt.

The case stemmed from a state court decision to throw out the conviction against Victor Castro-Huerta, who is not Native American. Castro-Huerta was charged by Oklahoma prosecutors with malnourishment of his disabled five-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Castro-Huerta has since pleaded guilty to a federal child neglect charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term, though he has not been formally sentenced yet.

The Supreme Court case involved the Muscogee reservation, but later rulings upheld the historic reservations of other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole nations.

The Cherokee Nation is the country’s largest Native American tribe by population with about 400,000 citizens, about 261,000 of whom live in Oklahoma.

“The exercise of state jurisdiction here would not infringe on tribal self-government. In particular, a state prosecution of a crime committed by a non-Indian against an Indian would not deprive the tribe of any of its prosecutorial authority,” Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion.

“That is because, with exceptions not invoked here, Indian tribes lack criminal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians such as Castro-Huerta, even when non-Indians commit crimes against Indians in Indian country.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appointee of President Donald Trump who joined the court’s liberal minority in this case, delivered the dissent, accusing the majority of committing “astonishing errors” ignoring the rules established by Congress on tribal sovereignty.

“The real party in interest here isn’t Mr. Castro-Huerta but the Cherokee, a Tribe of 400,000 members with its own government,” Gorsuch wrote. “Yet the Cherokee have no voice as parties in these proceedings; they and other Tribes are relegated to the filing of amicus briefs.”

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press