FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch poses for a picture next to the U.S. flag and the flag from his home state of Colorado in his chambers at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. September 13, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that a large area of eastern Oklahoma remains within the Muscogee (Creek) reservation with respect to the criminal justice system. The decision affects more than 1.8 million people that live on the land in question, including approximately 400,000 residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The case concerned Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Creek Nation convicted of sex crimes against a child by state authorities within the Nation’s historical boundaries. He stated that only federal authorities could prosecute him under The Major Crimes Act because the sovereignty of the Creek Nation had not been ended in the area. Oklahoma, backed by the Trump administration, argued that the disputed territory had never been reservation, and even if it had, it was dissolved long ago.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, stating that “because the government has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word” that the promised lands remained under federal criminal law. In a press release, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation praised the decision, writing, “The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ 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.”  Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a Comanche Nation citizen and attorney who specializes in tribal law, said that the ruling’s short-term implications are largely confined to the criminal context and serious felonies.

Justice John Roberts warned in a dissent that Oklahoma’s “ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.” He added that governance in the state has been “profoundly destabilized,” stating that impacts could range from “zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.” 

In a joint statement, Oklahoma and the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations stated their commitment “to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights.” In an interview following the ruling, Riyaz Kanji, and attorney for the tribe, said, “I don’t think this case is going to have earth-shattering consequences” on the residents of the land, be they Native American or not. He added that there would be “a tremendous amount of cooperation” between the state and the tribe.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

SCOTUS rules broad swath of Oklahoma is Native American land for purposes of federal criminal law – CNN – 7/9/2020
The Supreme Court said Thursday that a large swath of eastern Oklahoma, including Tulsa, is Native American land for purposes of federal criminal law in a decision that the state argued could call into question thousands of state prosecutions for serious crimes. Justice Neil Gorsuch penned the 5-4 opinion joined by the liberals on the bench.

Supreme Court rules criminal cases from historical tribal land cannot be handled by Oklahoma state prosecutors – Fox News – 7/9/2020
The decision threatens the validity of more than a century’s worth of state criminal convictions, something Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his dissenting opinion. […] Roberts rejected the idea that the land retains its reservation status, saying it was rescinded “in a series of statutes leading up to Oklahoma statehood at the turn of the 19th century.”

Supreme Court: Half of Oklahoma Is Native American Land – The Daily Beast – 7/9/2020
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a large portion of Oklahoma is Native American reservation land, belonging to the Creek Nation, and is therefore not subject to state jurisdiction. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that because Congress failed to formally undo the Creek Nation’s 19th-century reservation, the land located in eastern Oklahoma remains “Indian Country” for purposes of federal criminal law.

Supreme Court Rules Nearly Half of Oklahoma is a Native-American Reservation – National Review – 7/9/2020
The Court considered whether treaties from 1830s between the U.S. government and the Muscogee tribe that promised to “secure a country and permanent home to the whole Creek nation of Indians” were affected when Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

Ted Cruz on Twitter, 7/9/2020: Neil Gorsuch & the four liberal Justices just gave away half of Oklahoma, literally. Manhattan is next.

Bill Kristol on Twitter, 7/9/2020: Narrator: Needless to say, Neil Gorsuch and the four liberal justices did not just give away half of Oklahoma, literally.

Sister Helen Prejean on Twitter, 7/9/2020: Oklahoma argued that many residents will be surprised to learn that they’ve been living on tribal lands. Justice Gorsuch replied that members of the Creek Nation who signed the original treaty in 1832 would also be surprised to find them there.

Tom Fitton on Twitter, 7/9/2020: Outlandish Supreme Court decision, by Justice Gorsuch, “discovers” after 100 years, that half of Oklahoma (including much of Tulsa) is actually an Indian reservation! 

Emily Bazelon on Twitter, 7/9/2020: The big headlines today are the tax returns cases, but the Scotus decision about half of Oklahoma being Creek Nation territory has such big implications. What other treaties could be reassessed? Surely there is more land that was meant to belong to the tribes?

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