Washington — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Oklahoma can prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on Aboriginal land when the victim is Native American.
The 5-4 decision cuts into a High Court ruling from 2020, which held that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma is an American Indian reservation. The first decision left the state unable to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes on Aboriginal lands, which include Tulsa, the state’s second largest city, with a population of about 413,000.
A state court later ruled that the Supreme Court ruling also took away her ability to prosecute anyone for crimes committed on Aboriginal land, if the victim or perpetrator is Native American.
This gave the federal government the sole authority to prosecute such cases, and federal officials acknowledged that they lacked the resources to prosecute all crimes that fell upon them.
But the new judgment of the High Court states that the state can also take steps if the victim is a tribal member.
“The interest of the state in protecting crime victims includes both Indian and non-Indian victims,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh Wrote for court.
Following the 2020 ruling, about 43% of Oklahoma is now considered an Indian country, and the issue of the state’s ability to prosecute those crimes has “suddenly assumed extreme importance,” Kavanaugh wrote.
In a disagreement joined by three liberal members of the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the decision “allows Oklahoma to intrude on a feature of tribal sovereignty recognized since inception.”
The case exposed an already strained relationship between native tribes in Oklahoma and Republican Governor Kevin Stitt.
But Gorsuch wrote, “one can only hope that the political branches and the courts of the future will do their duty to honor the promises of this nation, even though we have failed to make our own today.”
The case stems from a state court’s decision to quash the conviction against Victor Castro-Huerta, who is not a Native American. Castro-Huerta was accused by Oklahoma prosecutors of malnourishing his disabled 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern band of the Cherokee Indians.
Castro-Huerta has since pleaded guilty to a federal child neglect charge in return for a seven-year prison term, although he has yet to formally receive a sentence.
The Supreme Court case involved the Muskogee Reservation, but subsequent rulings upheld the historical reservations of other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Kwapa, and Seminole nations.
The Cherokee nation is the largest Native American tribe in the country with approximately 400,000 citizens, of whom approximately 261,000 live in Oklahoma.
According to the Census Bureau, Native Americans make up only less than 10% of Oklahoma’s approximately 4 million people.