OKLAHOMA CITY – The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in Oklahoma’s ongoing battle with Native American tribes over the state's authority to prosecute people accused of crimes on Native American lands, following a 2020 Supreme Court decision.
The court agreed earlier this year to consider limiting its 2020 McGirt decision, a ruling that the state says has produced chaos in its courts.
The state’s appeal is in the case of Victor Castro-Huerta, who was charged with malnourishment of his 5-year-old stepdaughter and has since pleaded guilty to a federal child neglect charge and is awaiting sentencing.
He was initially convicted in state court but that conviction and his sentence were overturned because of the way the state courts interpreted the law in the aftermath of the McGirt ruling. The state appealed with the strong support of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and is the latest strain on his relationship with tribal leaders in the state.
In the 2020 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation. The ruling applied to the Muscogee reservation, but led to similar lower court rulings upholding the historic reservations of several other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole nations that cover nearly the entire eastern half of the state.
The decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, meant that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against American Indian defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city with a population of about 413,000.
Stitt said during his State of the State speech in February that “Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes.”
The Supreme Court does not typically reconsider its decisions so soon. But the state argued that crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted because federal authorities — who can bring criminal cases on tribal land — are overwhelmed.
“The state will argue that it has the right to protect Indian victims in front of the Supreme Court this week” his spokesperson, Carly Atchison said.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation, the state's most populous tribe with about 261,000 citizens, believes Stitt is trying to take away tribal sovereignty after the Supreme Court in January rejected the state's request to overturn McGirt.
“I think his goal now is to whittle away at McGirt,” Hoskin said, calling it a 19th century mindset toward the treatment of Native Americans.
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton agreed, calling the state's appeal and Stitt's support of the action an attack on tribal sovereignty.
"It’s put a strain on our relationship ... I would like to think it’s a lack of education rather than a lack of understanding” of treaties between two sovereign governments, the United States and the Choctaw Nation, Batton said.
“It’s becoming harder and harder the more he’s not accepting history and what the United States agreed to do and who we are as a Choctaw Nation," Batton said.
The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, made up of leaders of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations last fall rescinded a 2019 resolution commending and congratulating Stitt, a member of the Cherokee Nation, on his election as governor.
Stitt and tribal leaders previously clashed over Stitt’s desire to renegotiate tribal gambling compacts that he claimed were expiring. Federal and state courts ruled against Stitt in lawsuits over the gambling question.
Last year, Stitt decided to not renew hunting and fishing license compacts with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations as part of an ongoing dispute between the tribes and the Republican governor.
Stitt has lost support among Native American voters due to his actions, according to Hoskin.
“He absolutely has, in my opinion he’s the most anti-Native American governor in state history,” Hoskin said. “I think his defeat (for reelection) would be met with applause by many tribal leaders, certainly by me.”
Donelle Harder, manager of Stitt's reelection campaign said Stitt has had disagreements “with a small number of top officials of the tribes," but has good relations with tribal citizens he meets during his travels in the state.
“I think every Oklahoman knows this is a critical conversation that must be had and no one group or organization should dictate the future of all 4 million Oklahomans,” Harder said.