Supreme court expands states’ power to prosecute crimes on tribal lands

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A US supreme court decision on Wednesday that allows state prosecutors to pursue criminal cases for crimes committed by non-Native persons against Native persons on tribal land has spurred condemnation from tribal leaders and members – who have described the ruling as an attack on their autonomy.

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This ruling stems from the state criminal case Oklahoma v Castro-Huerta. Victor Castro-Huerta was charged by Oklahoma state prosecutors in 2015 for neglecting his five-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Castro-Huerta, who is not a Native, abused the child on the Cherokee reservation, according to Mother Jones.

Castro-Huerta, who was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment, argued that Oklahoma state prosecutors could not pursue a case against him, citing the 2020 supreme court ruling McGirt v Oklahoma. That decision stipulated that almost half of Oklahoma constituted tribal land; and, according to the Major Crimes Act, the state could not prosecute crimes by Native persons in tribal territory without getting federal approval, per Mother Jones.

“With today’s decision, the US supreme court ruled against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law,” the Cherokee nation principal chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr, said in a statement.

“The dissent today did not mince words – the court failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied Congress’s statutes, and accepted the ‘lawless disregard of the Cherokees’ sovereignty’.

He said: “Also unchanged is the affirmation of our reservation and our sovereignty. Despite the Oklahoma governor’s lies and attacks, the court has refused to overturn the McGirt decision. As we enter a chapter of concurrent jurisdiction, tribes will continue to seek partnership and collaboration with state authorities while expanding our own justice systems.”

The Muscogee nation said on Twitter: “The US supreme court’s ruling today in Castro-Huerta v Oklahoma is an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Native people.

“It hands jurisdictional responsibility in these cases to the state, which during its long, pre-McGirt, history of illegal jurisdiction on our reservation, routinely failed to deliver justice for Native victims.

“Public safety would be better served by expanding Tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within our reservation boundaries rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.”

Several Oklahoma leaders praised the supreme court decision, including Kevin Stitt, the Republican governor.

“This is a pivotal moment,” he said. “For two years, as a fourth-generation Oklahoman, member of the Cherokees, and governor of the state of Oklahoma, I have been fighting for equal protection under the law for all citizens. Today our efforts proved worthwhile and the court upheld that Indian country is part of a state, not separate from it.”