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article imageSCOTUS rules that nearly half of Oklahoma is reservation land

By Karen Graham     Jul 9, 2020 in Politics
Washington - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the eastern half of Oklahoma can be considered Native American territory, a decision the state previously warned could create "civil, criminal and regulatory turmoil."
The court's ruling centered on the application of the Major Crimes Act, which gives federal authorities, rather than state prosecutors, jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against Native Americans in Native American territory.
Under U.S. law, tribe members who commit crimes on reservation land cannot be tried in state courts but can be subject to federal prosecution, which at times can be beneficial to tribe members, according to Reuters.
The court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Seminole tribe. McGirt has served over 20 years of a 1,000-year sentence after being convicted in 1997 in Wagoner County in eastern Oklahoma of rape, lewd molestation and forcible sodomy of a 4-year-old girl.
McGirt, who did not contest his guilt in the case before the justices, claimed his state rape conviction from 1997 should be overturned because Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction. Congress, his lawyer Ian Gershengorn said, never properly terminated the reservation, reports USA Today.
Basically, the whole case hinged on whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation territory - where the crime was committed - should be considered a Native American reservation or whether Congress eliminated that status around the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
And here is where it gets interesting. Oklahoma argued that the Creek Nation never had a reservation, and even if they did, the state and the Donald Trump administration argued it was eliminated "long ago."
The state also argued that if the Supreme Court accepted McGirt’s reasoning it would “cause the largest judicial abrogation of state sovereignty in American history, cleaving Oklahoma in half.”
The justices had to go all the way in history to get the facts sorted out, starting with the forced removal of Native Americans from traditional lands, including the Creek Nation, to Oklahoma in a traumatic 19th-century event known as the “trail of tears.”
The SCOTUS ruling
The court's favorable ruling was written by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch - who voted along with the other four Liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
"In reaching our conclusion about what the law demands of us today, we do not pretend to foretell the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially ones that have gone unappreciated for so long," Gorsuch wrote in Thursday's decision. "But it is unclear why pessimism should rule the day. With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its Tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners."
"The federal government promised the (Muscogee Creek Nation) a reservation in perpetuity," Gorsuch wrote, adding that while Congress has "diminished" the sanctuary over time lawmakers had "never withdrawn the promised reservation."
"As a result, many of the arguments before us today follow a sadly familiar pattern. Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking."
Bottom line? The court's ruling means that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma is legally considered reservation land. More than 1.8 million people live in the land at issue, including roughly 400,000 in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city.
The case decided Thursday is formally known as McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18-9526.
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