In a 5-4 decision issued today, the Supreme Court ruled that much of the eastern half of Oklahoma — which is home to 1.8 million residents, including the city of Tulsa — shall be recognized as American Indian reservation land for certain purposes. The decision, which was authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was joined in votes by the four liberal justices on the court, means that only federal authorities can lodge charges against Indigenous Americans who have allegedly committed crimes on that land, taking the power away from state prosecutors, according to CNBC.
According to USA Today, the case in question dealt with an appeal from a Muscogee Creek man named Jimmy McGirt, who had claimed that his state rape conviction from 1997 should be overturned due to Oklahoma lacking jurisdiction over what should be considered a reservation, according to a treaty agreement between the federal government and the Muscogee Creek Nation. CNBC reports that McGirt was serving a life sentence after being convicted of raping a 4-year-old child in 1997, and his appeal claim was supported by the Muscogee Creek Nation who noted that while the tribe had “no role in the genesis of this litigation,” found the legitimacy of their reservation under attack as a result.
The case is a huge deal, because the resulting ruling has potentially profound effects in regards to Indian affairs in the state of Oklahoma — from zoning and taxation law to family, environmental, and criminal law. It could even potentially require the release of hundreds of inmates currently serving jail time.
In the decision, Justice Gorsuch highlighted Congress’ promise to the Creek Nation of a reservation for walking the Trail of Tears, writing “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… In seeking to defend the state court judgment below, Oklahoma has put aside whatever procedural defenses it might have and asked us to confirm that the land once given to the Creeks is no longer a reservation today. Under our Constitution, States have no authority to reduce federal reservations lying within their borders. Just imagine if they did…” adding that a decision in favor of Oklahoma would put tribal rights in the hands of neighbors who could potentially be the least inclined to respect them.