By Darren Thompson
Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Oklahoma has jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian Country. This is the first time in US history that a state has concurrent jurisdiction with the federal government.
In Oklahoma vs. Castro-HuertaOklahoma has asked the Supreme Court to return some criminal jurisdiction to the state after 2020 McGirt majority decision which determined that much of the eastern part of the state is still an Indian reservation.
“We conclude that the federal government and the state have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian Territory,” wrote Justice Kavanaugh in today’s opinion. “We therefore reverse the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and remand the case for retrial consistent with this opinion.”
The decision was written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, and overturns an April 2021 Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decision that overturned the Tulsa County conviction and sentence for Victor. Manuel Castro-Huerta.
The decision is seen as a victory for Oklahoma and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Until now, criminal jurisdiction in Indian Territory committed by non-Indians has been vested in either the United States or the state, but not both. However, states have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against other non-Indians in Indian Territory.
In the monumental 2020 McGirt majority decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Muskogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma is still an Indian reservation and that the state’s criminal jurisdiction is limited to crimes involving non-Indians only. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals applied the McGirt decision on the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Quapaw reserves.
After McGirtstate criminal jurisdiction was then limited to crimes involving non-Indians only in Indian Country.
Oklahoma argued in Castro Huerta that the McGirt decision disrupted the criminal justice system.
Republican Governor of Oklahoma Kevin Stitt, who is also registered with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, has been a vocal opponent of the McGirt decision. Oklahoma hoped to use Castro Huerta to restore some of his power over non-Indian offenders in the eastern part of the state.
In Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta, Victor Castro-Huerta, a non-native, was found guilty in federal court of child neglect, committed against his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, on the Cherokee Nation reservation in eastern Oklahoma. Oklahoma charged Castro-Huerta in state court with child neglect, was convicted, and sentenced to 35 years in state prison.
Castro-Huerta then appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals; he argued that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to pursue his case. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction, finding that McGirt applies to his case. He then accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison.
Briefs were filed in support of Oklahoma by the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Association, the State of Texas, the Environmental Federation of Oklahoma, Inc., the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, the Citizens for Equal Rights Foundation, City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and City of Owasso, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma argued it could sue Castro-Huerta, citing several Supreme Court precedents, including United States vs. McBratneyand Draper v. United Stateswhere the Supreme Court ruled that states could exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians in Indian Territory.
Oklahoma argued that Castro-Huerta’s conviction was valid because the state had “concurrent jurisdiction” with the federal government over crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian Territory.
Factums filed in support of the respondent, Castro-Huerta, were filed by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Women’s Resource Center, the Navajo Nation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, former United States Attorney Michael Cotter , D. Michael Duna Vant, Halsey B. Frank, Troy A. Eid, Thomas B Hefflfinger, David Iglesias, Brendan V. Johnson, Wendy Olson, Timothy Q. Pardon, and R. Trent Shores.
“With today’s decision, Oklahoma has not only weakened one component of the McGirt cases, but fundamentally altered the long-established understanding of how criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians operates in relation to the federal government, state governments, and tribal nation governments,” said the Indian National Congress of America (NCAI) in a joint statement. with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF).
“Despite the Oklahoma Governor’s lies and attacks, the Court refused to overturn the McGirt decision,” Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin said in a statement. “As we enter a chapter of concurrent jurisdiction, the tribes will continue to seek partnership and collaboration with state authorities while expanding our own justice systems. We hope that with these legal issues behind us, the Governor Stitt will finally end his anti-tribal agenda and come to the table to move forward with us – for the sake of Oklahomans and public safety.”
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in Castro-Huerta v. Oklahoma is an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Natives,” said Muscogee (Creek) Nation Senior Chief David Hill said in a statement. Wednesday. “It places jurisdictional responsibility in these cases on the state, which in its long history of pre-McGirt illegal jurisdiction over our reservation has consistently failed to bring justice to Indigenous victims.”
“Today’s decision also seeks to expand the State of Oklahoma’s authority over reservation lands to unprecedented levels to include concurrent jurisdiction over trust and restricted lands,” Hill continued in his statement. “It will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States.”
During the two-and-a-half-hour oral argument on April 27, Judge Neil Gorsuch said that states are often the “deadliest enemies” of tribes and their citizens and that states do not possess political power in the world. Indian country without the authorization of Congress.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Senior Chief David Hill, NCAI and NARF.
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