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Supreme Court restores Oklahoma authority over crimes on reservations



The Supreme Court on Wednesday scaled back the effect of its own ruling two years ago that blocked state authorities in Oklahoma from prosecuting some crimes on Native American reservation land.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said the state shares jurisdiction with the federal government for crimes committed on reservations by non-Native Americans against native victims.  

John O’Connor, the state attorney general, said the ruling “stood up for the safety of Oklahomans of Native American heritage in eastern Oklahoma.”

Wednesday’s decision narrowed but did not overrule the court’s ruling in 2020, which said the state did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by Native Americans on reservation land. As a result, only tribal or federal courts can try those cases. Oklahoma has six reservations in much of the eastern part of the state, including much of Tulsa.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the 2020 ruling, wrote the dissenting opinion Wednesday. He said it “allows Oklahoma to intrude on a feature of tribal sovereignty recognized since the founding. One can only hope the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this nation’s promises even as we have failed today to do our own.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that while Gorsuch, in the earlier ruling and today’s dissent, “emphasizes the history of mistreatment of American Indians … that does not resolve the legal questions presented in this case.” Native American reservation land is part of a state, and that gives both the state and federal government concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against native victims, the court said.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, decried the court’s ruling, saying in a statement that the justices ruled against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law.

“During arguments, Justice Gorsuch asked if the court would ‘wilt today because of a social media campaign.’ It is unfortunate that the answer appears to be yes,” he said.

The case was one of the last to be decided during the current Supreme Court term. The court said the final decisions will be announced on Thursday.



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