Supreme Court To Hear Arguments in Oklahoma Tribal Jurisdiction Case

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The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from Oklahoma over its current disagreement with Native American tribes. A 2020 Supreme Court ruling found that large swaths of eastern Oklahoma are legally Native American reservations, a ruling that has ruffled feathers in Oklahoma City. 

The state’s government claims it has the jurisdiction to prosecute people accused of state crimes, even when those crimes were allegedly committed within a Native American reservation. The native tribes disagree, saying their own courts should dispense justice to criminals who violate the law within their borders.

What’s Going On?

In 2020, a Supreme Court ruling found that most of eastern Oklahoma should have been set aside as reservations for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole nations. These reservations are recognized by federal law and have the authority to adjudicate their own courts.

However, the 2020 decision has led to chaos in Oklahoma’s courts, as cases that started before 2020 now have to contend with a complex web of interlocking native laws.

The 2020 decision makes it difficult for state prosecutors to pursue charges against Native American defendants in the eastern portion of the state. That responsibility falls to the individual native tribes, complicating matters for Oklahoma.

Federal Authorities

Oklahoma’s authorities say that this situation is untenable, as it means that state prosecutors can’t investigate crimes in the eastern portion of the state. This means that prosecution falls entirely on federal investigators, many of whom are now overwhelmed with the volume of crimes they need to investigate and respond to.

Oklahoma’s lawyers say the state needs to be granted jurisdiction over these cases again to help lighten the burden on the federal government. Typically, the Supreme Court typically doesn’t hear case reviews so close to the initial ruling, but this is a bizarre scenario in which state prosecutors are seeking to help federal authorities.

Tribes Argue Case Is Regressive

The tribes’ lawyers have argued that Oklahoma is taking a regressive approach to dealing with Native Americans. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. says he thinks Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, is trying to strip the tribes of their autonomy. 

“I think his goal now is to whittle away at McGirt,” says Hoskin Jr., referring to the 2020 Supreme Court decision. Hoskin Jr. tells reporters he feels Oklahoma is taking a “19th Century” approach to dealing with the tribes, running to the federal government to circumvent the Natives’ authority to govern their lands.