WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday backed Oklahoma's years long struggle for jurisdiction over certain crimes that take place on Native American land, a decision with implications for prosecutions of other crimes on Native territory.
The 5-4 decision comes two years after the nation's highest court handed down a ruling that vastly expanded what is considered Native territory in Oklahoma. Though Oklahoma officials had asked the Supreme Court to overturn that recent ruling, the high court declined to consider that request when it agreed to hear the case in January.
Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a dissent that was joined by the court's three liberal justices.
At issue was whether state courts in Oklahoma may hear cases involving non-Natives accused of crimes against Native Americans occurring on reservations or whether those crimes should be handled by federal courts. State officials said the 2020 decision, which vastly expanded what is considered Native territory for these purposes, threw criminal prosecutions into chaos.
The upshot of the decision is that the federal government and the state will have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Natives against Natives on Native territory.
State authorities charged Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta with neglecting his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. But the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the conviction, holding that because the crime occurred on Native American territory state courts didn’t have jurisdiction.
A 2020 Supreme Court decision upended the status quo in Oklahoma when a 5-4 majority ruled that Congress never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation, an area that encompasses 3 million acres and hundreds of thousands of non-Natives. State officials say that has had a "calamitous" effect on prosecutions.
But the decision left unresolved questions about certain criminal prosecutions. Oklahoma officials have decried the 2020 decision and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt described the ruling as the "most pressing issue for our state's future." Others have said Oklahoma is overstating the impact, which had been limited to certain kinds of crimes and depended on whether the suspect or victim is a tribal citizen.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court backs Oklahoma in battle over crimes on Native land