US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in case concerning crimes committed on reservations News
© WikiMedia (Joe Ravi)
US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in case concerning crimes committed on reservations

The US Supreme Court Wednesday heard oral arguments in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a case concerning the court’s 2020 decision that removed Oklahoma’s jurisdiction over many crimes in large parts of the state that remain classified as reservations. 

In 2015, Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who is not Native American, was convicted of child neglect and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Castro-Huerta’s stepdaughter, the victim, is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the crime was committed within the Cherokee Reservation.

Castro-Huerta challenged his conviction, arguing that Oklahoma could not prosecute him for a crime committed on Native American land without federal approval under the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Oklahoma argued that McGirt involved a Native American defendant, whereas Castro-Huerta is non-Native, so McGirt did not bar his prosecution by the state. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Castro-Huerta’s conviction because of the location in which the crime occurred. The appeals court held that McGirt covered crimes committed by any individual on Native American lands.

Oklahoma then appealed to the Supreme Court in September 2021, asking the court to consider whether a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians on Native American lands. On January 21, the Supreme Court granted certiorari. 

During oral arguments, the justices seemed keen on keeping the general rule that states do not possess powers in Native American territories absent congressional authorization in tact. Justice Gorsuch pointed out to Oklahoma’s advocate, Kannon Shanmugam, that the US made promises through treaties with the Cherokee Nation pertaining to the duty of protection. The duty of protection, usually known as the “trust responsibility,” favors deference to the Cherokee Nation government. Justice Gorsuch also commented on other federal promises, including that “no other sovereign” would have power with the Cherokee lands and that the Cherokee government must consent before state powers would be applicable.

Justice Breyer asked why Oklahoma could not just go to Congress for relief, as all other states act under the assumption that state jurisdiction is forbidden absent congressional authorization. Justice Sotomayor added to Justice Breyer’s questioning by stating that many states have declined to assert jurisdiction in Native American territory in part because of the expensive obligations, with little or no federal money to pursue. Justice Sotomayor commented that if Oklahoma were to prevail, all states would be shackled with an “unfunded mandate.”

A decision is expected by the court by mid-June.