The Fight for Sovereignty: Supreme Court Divided Over Cases About Native American Societies

Ana Martinez, Online Editor-in-Chief

Supreme Court justices are currently divided over Oklahoma’s authority to prosecute crimes on Native American lands, following a 2020 high court decision that increased Native American tribal authority in the state.

The 2020 case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, recognized approximately half of Oklahoma as Native American reservation land beyond the jurisdiction of state authorities. The ruling implies that crimes committed on Native American land must be prosecuted in tribal or federal courts. For non-Native American individuals, the state is permitted to prosecute crimes on these lands. 

Several individuals, including Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and other Republicans, criticized McGirt v. Oklahoma for limiting jurisdiction on these grounds. On the other hand, Native Americans have embraced the case as further recognition of their sovereignty. 

Currently, McGirt v. Oklahoma is under pressure. In January, Oklahoma requested to overturn the case, but the Supreme Court rejected the request. Now, an April court appeal has led to a reopening of the case. 

The recent case involved Victor Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American who was convicted of child neglect against a Native American child, his five-year-old stepdaughter, on the Cherokee Nation Reservation. 

The state court dismissed the conviction, saying the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling deprived Oklahoma authorities of jurisdiction in the case. In the appeal, the Supreme Court plans on examining whether the state retains the authority to prosecute non-Natives for crimes committed on tribal lands against Native American victims. 

While Castro has not yet been formally sentenced, he pleaded guilty to the charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term. 

The 2020 court decision had a 5-4 ruling, with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch joining four liberal justices in favor of the decision. Nonetheless, Amy Coney Barrett’s replacement of the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020 leaves a 6-3 conservative majority. Barrett now serves as the deciding vote in the case. 

If the Supreme Court overturns McGirt v. Oklahoma, the ruling would affect the rest of the United States, whose states follow a policy of state decisis, or similar following to the Oklahoma case. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling on the issue is expected to be determined by the end of June. The case serves as one of Justice Stephen Breyer’s last cases before his retirement and eventual replacement by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.