US Supreme Court Rules Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land
The US Supreme Court has ruled approximately half of Oklahoma belongs to Native Americans in a landmark case.
The court decided 5-4 that an eastern chunk of the state – including its second-biggest city, Tulsa – should be recognised as part of a reservation.
The ruling, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, means Oklahoma prosecutors will now lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against Native American defendants in large parts of Oklahoma.
Thursday’s ruling is seen as one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades, and could have far-reaching implications for the people who live in Oklahoma – especially those who live in what the court yesterday affirmed was Indian Country.
In particular, the ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions won by local prosecutors as it means some tribe members found guilty in state courts for offences committed on the land can now challenge their convictions.
One example of this is Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Seminole Nation who was convicted of raping a child in Wagoner County in 1997 and who brought the case to the US Supreme Court.
Citing the historical claim of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to the land where the assault occurred, McGirt, now 71, managed to get his prison sentence overturned with the Supreme Court ruling.
McGirt did not dispute his guilt before the Supreme Court, instead arguing that only federal authorities should have been entitled to prosecute him. He could still be tried in federal court.
Now, as a direct result of the decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, only federal prosecutors will have the power to criminally prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes in the area in question.
Muscogee leaders hailed the decision a huge victory that clarified the status of their lands, with the tribe saying it would work with state and federal law enforcement authorities to coordinate public safety within the reservation.
‘This is a historic day,’ Principal Chief David Hill told The New York Times. ‘This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.’ His thoughts were echoed by many on social media, who celebrated the decision with the declaration ‘Native Lives Matter’.
However, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. warned the court’s decision would wreak havoc on Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, stating: ‘The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.’
‘On top of that,’ he added, ‘the court has profoundly destabilised the governance of eastern Oklahoma’. His comments came after the Justice Department raised concerns about how federal prosecutors would cope with the new cases they would be suddenly responsible for investigating.
Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested optimism though, writing, as per The Guardian: ‘It is unclear why pessimism should rule the day. With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its Tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners.’
Oklahoma’s three US attorneys released a joint statement shortly after the ruling, expressing confidence that ‘tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement will work together to continue providing exceptional public safety’.
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