Supreme Court to review Oklahoma case concerning crimes committed on reservations
MarkThomas / Pixabay
Supreme Court to review Oklahoma case concerning crimes committed on reservations

The Supreme Court Friday granted review of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a case that will help determine the scope of a ruling from two years ago regarding major crimes committed in Indian country.

In 2020 the justices decided McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma, in fact remains an Native American reservation and that only the federal government has the power to try certain crimes committed by any Indian.

The case currently in question involves Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who was convicted of neglecting his five-year-old step-daughter. He is not Native American, but his stepdaughter is, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction because the crime occurred in Indian territory. The appeals court concluded that the decision in McGirt applies not just to major crimes committed by Native Americans but also to such crimes committed by anyone while on the reservation.

The state of Oklahoma filed a petition with the Supreme Court, alleging that “No recent decision of this Court has had a more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State than McGirt v. Oklahoma.” Because of McGirt, federal and tribal prosecutors and courts are overwhelmed with cases, leading to crimes going uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

The state argues that the court of criminal appeals was wrong in its interpretation of McGirt and asked the justices to review “Whether a State has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country.” Oklahoma also goes a step further and asks the Court whether McGirt should be overruled, noting that, “While the Court believed that compromise or congressional action could limit the disruption from its decision, it is now clear that neither is forthcoming.” Because of that, the petition concludes, “Only the Court can remedy the problems it has created.”

Castro-Huerta had urged the Court to deny review of the case, noting that the Court has long acknowledged that only the federal government, not the state, has jurisdiction over offenses committed on reservations by non-Indians against Native Americans. While acknowledging the “real effects” of McGirt, he alleges that Oklahoma vastly overstates them. And he asserted that, as with all statutory decisions that the Court hands down, “the ball is now where the Constitution places it: With Congress.” It is up to the legislative branch to overturn McGirt, not the Court, he concluded.

The justices decided to hear the case, however, they have limited it to the first question presented about whether the state can prosecute non-Indians accused of crimes against Native Americans while on a reservation and will not revisit McGirt itself. The case is set for argument in the April 2022 session, with a decision expected by summer.