Supreme Court Rules Much Of Oklahoma Within Native American Reservation, Compromising Past Criminal Convictions

( The Supreme Court handed down a decision Thursday that could have huge ramifications for not only criminal convictions in Oklahoma, but also many other ways of life.

The court ruled that roughly half of the land that makes up Oklahoma is part of a Native American reservation. Its 5-4 decision said the Creek reservation is still in existence after Oklahoma became a state.

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote:

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

A large part of the eastern section of Oklahoma is part of the Creek reservation. That includes a large part of the state’s second-largest city, Tulsa. In celebrating the Supreme Court decision, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said in a statement:

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries.”

The case the Supreme Court heard involved Jimcy McGirt, who is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. He was convicted of committing sex crimes against a child on Creek land. During his trial, he argued the state didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter, and that he needed to be tried in federal court because of where the crime took place.

Criminal law in Oklahoma will now be affected greatly by this ruling going forward. Major crimes that are committed on the reservation land have to be prosecuted in federal and not state court if a Native American is involved in the crime. Less serious crimes that fit this criteria would be tried in tribal courts.

The ruling could also have large consequences on past court decisions, which could be considered wrongful convictions because the state never had jurisdiction. Other people convicted of crimes could challenge their conviction in court and have grounds to do so now. Civil court issues are also affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

It’s this exact scenario that led Chief Justice John Roberts to wrote in his dissent that the ruling “will undermine numerous convictions by the State, as well as the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes committed in the future,” which “may destabilize the governance of vast swathes of Oklahoma.”

Kevin Washburn, the dean of the University of Iowa law school, reiterated, though, that a reservation is much like a county, in that it describes a jurisdictional boundary. It does not mean that the reservation actually owns the land.

The ruling, therefore, “doesn’t mean the tribe owns all the land within the reservation, just like the county doesn’t own all the land within the county,” he said. “In fact, it probably doesn’t own very much of that land. That’s not what a reservation is these days.”

In a joint statement with the Seminole, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chocotaw and Chickasaw nations, state Attorney General Mike Hunter said they “have made substantial progress toward an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice addressing and resolving any significant jurisdictional issues.”