In a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that much of the eastern swath of Oklahoma, including Tulsa, encompases Native American reservations. This decision is founded on the fact that the federal government never nullified its granting of the land to the Creek Nation in 1866.
Legally, this decision means that tribe members previously convicted of crimes committed on the reservation land are now eligible to challenge their sentencing. Additionally, going forward, if a tribe member is involved in a select number of major crimes, then that tribe member must be prosecuted in a federal court, not in a state court. For minor offenses, tribe members will be prosecuted in tribal courts.
The case related to the July 9 decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, began when 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, serving a 500-year sentence for child molestation, appealed that Oklahoma courts should not handle his case, arguing instead that it belonged in federal courts.
McGirt made this argument after Patrick Murphy, who was convicted for murder of a tribe member in 1999, successfully had his case moved to a federal court on the basis that the U.S. government never dissolved the reservation on which he committed the crime. Therefore, under the Major Crimes Act, Murphy’s case was not under state jurisdiction.
The decision was 5-4 in favor of McGirt. Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer represented the majority.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” writes Gorsuch in the majority opinion, siding with the court’s liberal constituents.
Many of the case’s dissenters argued that it would allow the mass release of many previously convicted criminals, causing a crime spike in the state. However, these claims seem largely unsubstantiated.
Though this decision has retroactive impacts, meaning that convicted members can challenge their convictions, it is only a small number that are eligible to do so. This is due to “federal habeas relief,” which moves a state conviction to a federal court. Federal habeas relief must be enacted within one year after someone’s conviction for them to be eligible, alongside other restrictions. The Tahlequah-based journalist Rebecca Nagle estimated that out of the 1,887 Native Americans incarcerated by Oklahoma before Jan. 1, 2020, less than 10 percent can apply for relief, and, even post-applications, they would face a lengthy and difficult appeals process.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation released the following statement on the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision:
“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’s sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. 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.”