The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that nearly half the state of Oklahoma remains an Indian reservation as far as the state’s criminal-justice system affects tribe members.
The five to four decision by the justices said that most of the eastern half of Oklahoma, which includes Tulsa, is part of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Reservation since Congress never voted to end its sovereignty.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the majority, joined by the liberal wing of the Court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. The remaining conservative justices dissented.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” Gorsuch wrote. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The ruling overturned 71-year-old tribe member Jimcy McGirt’s conviction in Oklahoma state court for raping a four-year-old Native American girl in 1997 since the crime was committed on reservation land, where he is not subject to state criminal law. McGirt was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years. He argued that only federal authorities could prosecute him for his crimes and may now face a trial in federal court.
The Court considered whether treaties from 1830s between the U.S. government and the Muscogee tribe that promised to “secure a country and permanent home to the whole Creek nation of Indians” were affected when Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
The state of Oklahoma argued that if the Court ruled in favor of McGirt it would “cause the largest judicial abrogation of state sovereignty in American history, cleaving Oklahoma in half.”
Chief Justice John Roberts penned a dissent warning that the ruling could hamper the state in exercising authority on a variety of issues.
“The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law,” Roberts wrote. “None of this is warranted.”
More than 1.8 million people live in the part of the state affected by the ruling.