Oklahoma AG Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Ruling on Tribal Criminal Jurisdiction

By Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'
August 7, 2021 Updated: August 8, 2021

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn—or at least narrow the scope of—a landmark 2020 ruling on tribal sovereignty that he said was inadvertently leading to a “criminal-justice crisis” and putting the public in danger.

O’Connor, a Republican, said in an Aug. 6 filing (pdf) that that the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute major crimes committed by Native Americans in a large portion of eastern Oklahoma, has led to outcomes that are “calamitous and worsening by the day” for Oklahomans.

The Supreme Court’s decision ruled that a large part of eastern Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa, is still considered tribal land, taking the prosecution of crimes on that land away from local authorities and handing it to federal and tribal authorities.

“The decision in McGirt now drives thousands of crime victims to seek justice from federal and tribal prosecutors whose offices are not equipped to handle those demands. Numerous crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted, endangering public safety. Federal district courts in Oklahoma are completely overwhelmed,” O’Connor said in the petition.

One of the consequences of limiting the state’s criminal jurisdiction over tribal lands, O’Connor argued, was that thousands of state prisoners are challenging decades’ worth of convictions, many of which can’t be prosecuted anew.

“Victims of atrocious crimes are being revictimized by going through the legal process a second time, and, in some instances, seeing their loved one’s killer set free because federal prosecutors cannot file the claims against the released convicts,” O’Connor said in a statement.

Arguing that the Supreme Court “got this decision wrong,” O’Connor added that he is asking for the court to overturn its decision or to limit it to certain federal crimes. Specifically, the petition calls for the high court to allow violent felons convicted before the ruling to remain in state prisons and to grant the state the authority to prosecute non-Native Americans who commit crimes against tribal citizens on reservation land.

“The most effective way to right this terrible wrong is for the court to overturn the McGirt decision. Without action, the negative consequences will damage Oklahomans for years to come,” O’Connor said.

Attorneys for some of the tribes have argued the state’s dire warnings are overblown and that federal and tribal courts are working to handle the additional caseload.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. accused O’Connor and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee Nation citizen, of advancing an “anti-Indian political agenda.”

“The governor has never attempted to cooperate with the tribes to protect all Oklahomans,” Hoskin said in a statement. “It is perfectly clear that it has always been his intent to destroy Oklahoma’s reservations and the sovereignty of Oklahoma tribes, no matter what the cost might be.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'