A Supreme Court decision rendered Thursday simultaneously overturned one man's death penalty conviction and preserved the jurisdictional boundaries of Muscogee (Creek) Nation granted by treaties.
The 5-4 decision, penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, was hailed as an "historic win" for the tribe. But changes are in store for the criminal justice system in eastern Oklahoma, much of which remains a reservation granted by prior treaties.
That means state prosecutors lack the jurisdictional authority to prosecute tribal members accused of certain crimes if the conduct alleged occurred on reservation land, which includes most of Tulsa, the state's second-largest city, and Muskogee.
"Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law," Gorsuch wrote in a decision joined by the court's liberal members. "Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word."
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation waded into the death penalty case arising from a McIntosh County murder conviction when jurisdiction became a central appellate issue. Tribal officials said on Thursday they were "very, very pleased" with the decision.
“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation," tribal officials said in an official statement. "Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries."
Creek Nation officials pledged to work with federal and state law enforcers to "ensure public safety is "maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.” In a joint statement issued by the Five Civilized Tribes and the state, officials said they remain committed to seeing that "Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused."
Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge said the decision will have an immediate impact on the workload in his office. He said about 20 applications for post-conviction relief have been filed and remained pending until the high court rendered its decision in McGirt vs. Oklahoma and Sharp vs. Murphy.
The criminal defendants in both cases asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's historic boundaries within the state of Oklahoma constitute a still-existing "Indian reservation." The Major Crimes Act provides that "any Indian who commits" certain crimes be prosecuted in federal court.
Jimcy McGirt and Patrick Murphy are citizens of federally recognized tribes who were convicted by the State of Oklahoma for crimes listed among those enumerated in the Major Cries Act. The crimes occurred within the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which the high court determined Thursday is a reservation.
Loge said the pending applications will be reviewed to determine how Thursday's decision might apply to each particular circumstance. He said new referrals coming into his office will require additional scrutiny as they come in to ensure prosecutorial jurisdiction is proper.
"This is going to require some additional training for some police departments and maybe some cross-deputization of officers," Loge said, noting the latter is occurring to some degree already. "It will require extra work in our office, but we will be able to handle it with our current resources."
The National Congress of American Indians and Native American Rights Fund hailed the decision as an "historic win. The organizations, in a joint statement, said the Supreme Court decision reaffirms a solemn guarantee the federal government made when it granted land by treaty to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation when it moved from its ancestral home to its reservation in what eventually became Oklahoma.
“Through two terms of the U.S. Supreme Court, and as many cases and fact patterns, this question has loomed over federal Indian law," NCAI President Fawn Sharp said. "This morning NCAI joins the rest of Indian Country in congratulating the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and proudly asserting that its lands remain, and will forever be considered, Indian Country as guaranteed in their treaty relationship with the United States.”
NARF Executive Director John Echohawk said the court's decision puts "to rest what never should have been at question."
“In this case, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had to fight long and hard to protect their homelands, which were promised in their treaty agreements with the United States," Echohawk said. "We congratulate the Nation on its success.”
U.S. Sen. James Lankford said he is "grateful for the commitment" made by officials with the state and Five Tribes to work with Oklahoma's congressional delegation. Lankford, who was joined by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, said the delegation plans "to craft legislation that ensures ... the ruling has a minimal impact on individuals and businesses throughout Oklahoma."
While the court's ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions won by local prosecutors, Gorsuch suggested optimism in his 45-page opinion for the court.
"In reaching our conclusion about what the law demands of us today, we do not pretend to foretell the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially ones that have gone unappreciated for so long," Gorsuch wrote. "But it is unclear why pessimism should rule the day. With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its Tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners."
Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote the dissenting opinion. He contends "Congress disestablished any Creek reservation more than 100 years ago."
The case, argued by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, stems from an appeal by an American Indian who claims state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reservation land that belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The Supreme Court, with eight justices taking part, failed to reach a decision in 2019, when it reviewed a federal appeals court ruling in a separate case that threw out Patrick Murphy's state murder conviction and death sentence. In that case, the appeals court said the crime occurred on land assigned to the tribe before Oklahoma became a state and Congress never clearly eliminated the Creek Nation reservation it created in 1866.
The case the justices decided Thursday involved 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for molesting a child. Oklahoma state courts rejected his argument that his case does not belong in Oklahoma courts and that federal prosecutors should instead handle his case.
McGirt could potentially be retried in federal court, as could Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe member in 1999 and sentenced to death. But Murphy would not face the death penalty in federal court for a crime in which prosecutors said he mutilated the victim and left him to bleed to death on the side of a country road about 80 miles southeast of Tulsa.