On January 21, the Supreme Court announced it would consider whether its 2020 decision to expand tribal authority in Oklahoma should overturn the conviction of a non-Indian man for abusing a half-Indian adopted child.
The High Court will consider whether states can prosecute non-Indians for crimes against Indians on Indian reservations, but specifically declined to review its 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which left Oklahoma courts unable to hear criminal cases against Native Americans for crimes. place in Indian lands.
Case, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, Oklahoma v. Castro Huerta, Case File 21-429. The ruling of 21 January (pdf) was not signed and contained no grounds for a decision to consider the case in accordance with the usual practice of the highest court.
In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 on July 9, 2020, that most of eastern Oklahoma and parts of central Oklahoma are Indian Territory because Indian reservations are located on it. This meant that Native Americans in these lands could only be prosecuted in tribal or federal courts under a federal law called the Serious Crimes Act. Another court clarified that the reservations belonged to the so-called Five Civilized Tribes – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole.
Conservative judge Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by four liberal judges: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, and was replaced weeks later by Conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Four conservative judges – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas – disagreed with the majority’s decision.
Some critics of McGirt’s decision suggest that the case might have been decided differently had it been retried now that Barrett has replaced Ginsburg.
But the Supreme Court disagreed in its Jan. 21 ruling to rehear McGirt. The Court agreed to consider only one of the two questions posed by the state in its petition (pdf), namely, “Does the state have the power to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in an Indian country.”
The Court indicated that it would not address the second question, namely, “Should McGirt v. Oklahoma be overturned…”.
In the Oklahoma petition, the state criticized the 2020 ruling, writing, “No recent ruling from this court has had a more immediate and destabilizing impact on life in the American state than McGirt v. Oklahoma.”
Court ruling “that the large area of Oklahoma that was once within the borders of the Creek Tribe qualifies as ‘Indian Country’ for the purposes of the Serious Crimes Act. This decision removed the state’s power to prosecute Indians who commit serious crimes there, and Oklahoma courts have since ruled that McGirt is forcing the same conclusion for the other five tribes in Oklahoma.”
This meant that “nearly 2 million Oklahomaans, the vast majority of whom are non-Native Americans, suddenly found themselves in Indian country for the purposes of federal criminal jurisdiction.”
As Roberts “foretold in his dissent, the results of this abrupt change in sovereignty were disastrous and worsened by the day.” McGirt’s decision “now forces thousands of crime victims to seek justice from federal and local prosecutors whose offices have never dealt with these claims before,” the petition says.
“Numerous crimes remain uninvestigated and unpunished, endangering public safety,” the petition reads. “The federal district courts in Oklahoma are completely overwhelmed.”
“The effects have spilled over into the civil realm, jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenue and calling into question the state’s regulatory authority over a myriad of matters within its own borders.”
McGirt raises “two exceptionally important issues … which require the immediate attention of the Court.”
According to the motion, Defendant Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta was convicted of “serious neglect of his five-year-old stepdaughter enrolled in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.” A jury in Oklahoma sentenced him to 35 years after a child officially declared blind and suffering from cerebral palsy was taken to the Tulsa emergency room in 2015.
The stepdaughter “was admitted in critical condition; she was dehydrated, emaciated, covered in lice and excrement, and weighed only nineteen pounds. Investigators who visited the respondent’s home later discovered that her crib was full of bed bugs and cockroaches and contained a single dry non-spill cup, the top of which had been chewed through.”
Castro-Huerta admitted to authorities that he knew the baby “required five bottles of nutritional supplements a day,” but he had given her “only twelve to eighteen bottles in the previous month.”
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the man’s conviction, finding that the crime took place in an Indian country. The Court of Appeal also ruled that McGirt’s ruling “goes beyond the Major Crimes Act and covers all crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country”.
According to the state’s petition, this conclusion was “erroneous and greatly exacerbates the ongoing criminal justice crisis in Oklahoma.”
The Epoch Times reached out to Supreme Court Defendant Official Counsel Zachary S. Schauf of Jenner and Block law firm in the nation’s capital for comment, but received no immediate response.