Supreme Court Holds Large Piece of Oklahoma Belongs to Native American Tribe

July 9, 2020 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a large part of eastern Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes – a significant victory for a reservation that challenged the state’s authority to prosecute crimes on its land.

Writing for the majority, in the 5-4 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the disputed area, which covers about half of the state, 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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”

For purposes of the Major Crimes Act, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country,” Gorsuch said.

He was joined in the majority by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The underlying lawsuit was filed by Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who was convicted of sex crimes against a child by the state of Oklahoma within the historical Creek Nation boundaries.

He argued that Oklahoma could not exercise jurisdiction over him because under the Indian Major Crimes Act, any crime involving a Native American victim or perpetrator, or occurring within recognized reservation boundaries, is subject to federal jurisdiction, not state jurisdiction.

Thursday’s ruling could upend the state’s authority over much of the land and restrict it from prosecuting tribal members who commit crimes on the reservation.

The ruling is an indication of how Gorsuch’s presence has already transformed the court in a significant way. Based on a long history of cases, many had cynically come to see the Supreme Court as the venue in which Native American tribes consistently lost.

But throughout his career, Gorsuch has distinguished himself by enforcing the clear language of contracts and treaties the federal government has executed with tribes.

Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Jr. and Brett Kavanaugh in full, and by Justice Clarence Thomas, except for a footnote.

Thomas also filed his own dissenting opinion.

The court also released a brief unsigned decision in Sharp v. Murphy, which had been held over since last term, affirming the 10th Circuit’s ruling in light of Thursday’s decision.

In the underlying case, Patrick Dwayne Murphy, a member of the Creek Nation, was convicted in Oklahoma state court and sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of George Jacobs, who was a member of the same nation.

Murphy’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. Murphy then sought post-conviction relief on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that the Major Crimes Act gave the federal government exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute murders committed by Indians in Indian Country, a term defined under federal law to include reservations, allotments, and dependent Indian communities.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately rejected Murphy’s jurisdictional argument, sending the case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.

In August 2017, the 10th Circuit overturned Murphy’s murder conviction and death sentence, determining he was unfairly tried in state court for a crime that occurred on tribal land.

The 10th Circuit’s determination that the Creek reservation was never disbanded has threatened to throw into question not only Murphy’s conviction but others that occurred in east-central Oklahoma. 

It was for that reason that Solicitor General Francisco and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the case.

In essence, Murphy’s case raised the same underlying question as McGirt did: Whether the 1866 territorial boundaries of the Creek Nation within the former Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma constitute an “Indian reservation” under the relevant federal regulations today.

Supreme Court

High Court Blocks NY Coronavirus Limits on Houses of Worship
Supreme Court
High Court Blocks NY Coronavirus Limits on Houses of Worship

WASHINGTON (AP) — As coronavirus cases surge again nationwide the Supreme Court late Wednesday barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus. The justices split 5-4 with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the... Read More

Alito: COVID Crisis Has Been a ‘Constitutional Stress Test’
Supreme Court
Alito: COVID Crisis Has Been a ‘Constitutional Stress Test’
November 13, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., told the Federalist Society in a keynote address Thursday night the coronavirus pandemic has led to "previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty." "I am not diminishing the severity of the virus's threat to public health," Alito continued in a... Read More

Supreme Court Appears Likely to Preserve Most of Affordable Care Act
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Appears Likely to Preserve Most of Affordable Care Act
November 10, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON -- So much for the new conservative majority of the Supreme Court dismantling the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, during oral arguments for California v. Texas, one of this term's most anticipated cases, two members of that majority, suggested they're not inclined to strike down... Read More

All About the New ACA Challenge Before the Supreme Court
Supreme Court
All About the New ACA Challenge Before the Supreme Court
November 10, 2020
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — This morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a legal challenge seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.  This third major challenge to the ACA heard by the Supreme Court, Texas v. California seeks to decide whether Congress, by eliminating the penalty... Read More

Political Gaze Shifts to the Supreme Court as Justices Hear Pivotal Health Care Case
Supreme Court
Political Gaze Shifts to the Supreme Court as Justices Hear Pivotal Health Care Case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett hears oral argument Tuesday in a case that threatens to wipe out the 2010 health care law, likely the term's most consequential case, under a political spotlight that rarely shines brighter on justices who would rather stay out of it.... Read More

Supreme Court Blocks Injured Officer's Suit Against Leader of Black Lives Matter Rally
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Blocks Injured Officer's Suit Against Leader of Black Lives Matter Rally

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday set aside an appeals court ruling by a panel of conservative judges that held an injured police officer could sue and win damages from the leader of a Black Lives Matter protest rally. The case had raised alarms among civil libertarians, who said it... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top