U.S. Supreme Court ruling supports tribal sovereignty

This article appeared in the September 2020 edition of the Chickasaw Times

Jimcy McGirt has been taken into federal custody following the July 9 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma. McGirt, a Seminole citizen, was convicted in Oklahoma state court of committing a crime against another Native person within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

McGirt argued his case should have been heard in a federal court because he was a Native American citizen accused of committing a crime in Indian country. Federal officials took McGirt into custody following the ruling that the Creek Nation boundaries remain intact.

While neither the Creek Nation nor any of the Five Tribes initiated this particular court case, each of the Tribal nations agreed on the importance of defending Tribal sovereignty, which is the underlying issue.

Under Federal law, only the United States and Tribes have jurisdiction to prosecute Indians for crimes committed within “Indian Country,” and only the Federal government has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed against Indians within “Indian Country.”

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion in McGirt.

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for the purposes of federal criminal law,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”

The court’s 5-4 decision in McGirt affirmed the responsibility of the federal government to honor the treaty promises of the United States to the Creek Nation.

In a ruling that outlined the history of the Creek Nation, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that Congress had never acted to disestablish the Creek Nation reservation established before Oklahoma statehood. Therefore, those boundaries continue to define “Indian Country” for purposes of the federal criminal statutes.

The Court’s decision is significant for Native American tribes in Oklahoma, and across the country. It marks a clear recognition by the court of the federal responsibility to honor the promises made by the U.S. government to the tribes. Tribal sovereignty is strengthened and reaffirmed by the court’s ruling.

While ruling strongly in favor of Tribal sovereign rights, the Court also emphasized that “Oklahoma and its tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners.”

This ruling affirms Tribal sovereign rights and emphasizes the responsibility to continue working with other governments that have overlapping jurisdiction, which the Chickasaw Nation has done for decades.

The Court’s McGirt ruling did not address the Chickasaw Nation or any of the other of the Five Tribes, however, each share a common legal history. Due to the ruling, several cases are now raising McGirt’s application with respect to each of the Tribes. The lead case following McGirt is Bosse v. Oklahoma, in which a non-Native man is seeking to have his Oklahoma court conviction for the murder of three Chickasaw citizens thrown out. This case will go to hearing on the McGirt issue on September 30, 2020, and the Chickasaw Nation is working to ensure its sovereign rights are protected and that justice for the victims is served.

“The Chickasaw Nation has been working with Oklahoma for years to ensure effective law enforcement and public safety,” said Governor Anoatubby. “The McGirt ruling makes our work even more important. We will always stand to protect our treaties and our rights. We will also stand to preserve justice and oppose those who would abuse our treaties in a cynical effort to avoid justice.”

McGirt v. Oklahoma – Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the McGirt case?

  • This case began when a defendant challenged his criminal conviction by an Oklahoma court.
  • The Native American defendant said the alleged crime happened in “Indian Country” and should have been tried in federal court under the Major Crimes Act.
  • The core issue was whether Muscogee (Creek) Nation boundaries established by treaty were diminished or disestablished as a result of laws and policies leading up to Oklahoma Statehood.
  • The Court ruled “Congress established a reservation for the Creek Nation.”
  • The court further ruled that once those boundaries are established, Congress must act with clear intent to diminish or disestablish them.
  • This decision upheld previous Supreme Court decisions that Congress alone has the power to change those boundaries.
  • The Court ruled that Congress never acted to diminish or disestablish Creek Nation treaty-territory boundaries, so they remain intact.
  • This decision impacts criminal jurisdiction within Creek Nation boundaries.

2. Why is this an important legal decision?

  • This decision affirms previous Supreme Court decisions holding the federal government to its treaty promises.
  • This ruling makes it clear that actions related to Oklahoma Statehood did not do away with the Creek Nation boundaries.
  • This decision affirms the geographic boundaries that comprise an important element of tribal sovereignty.
  • This decision confirms that Congress alone has the authority to disestablish boundaries established by treaty.
  • This ruling reinforces the significant role Congress plays in federal Indian policy.
  • Currently, this decision only applies to the Creek Nation. However, it will presumably be applied to each of the Five Tribes.

3. What has the result of McGirt been to date?

  • The Creek Nation is implementing the decision operationally.
  • Many criminal defendants and individuals convicted in State court are now challenging their convictions.
  • The courts are evaluating each on a case-by-case basis in the pursuit of justice for everyone involved.
  • This has increased the workload of federal, state and tribal courts.
  • There has been some confusion in local and municipal courts regarding the impact of the ruling on other Tribes.
  • While the decision currently applies only to the Creek Nation, it is expected to be applied to each of the Five Tribes through the courts.

4. What does the Chickasaw Nation generally plan to do?

  • Communicate the fact that the McGirt decision does not currently apply to the Chickasaw Nation
  • Collaborate with state and local law enforcement agencies, district attorneys, courts and the public to develop a better understanding of the implications of the decision
  • Develop a plan for the time when the McGirt decision may be applied to the Chickasaw Nation
  • Make preparations to modify tribal operations as needed
  • Analyze options available to all constitutional departments of government and develop best practices to determine a course of action for each department
  • Develop a comprehensive plan of action to prepare for possible future expanded jurisdictional authority and responsibility
  • Make preparations to fund and implement the plan of action