Supreme Court rules states can sue non-Native Americans on tribal lands

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The Supreme Court has ruled Oklahoma can prosecute non-Native Americans who commit crimes against Native Americans on tribal lands — reversing an earlier ruling that expanded tribal authority in the state.

The case stemmed from a state court decision to overturn the conviction of Victor Castro-Huerta, who is not Native American. Oklahoma prosecutors charged Castro-Huerta with malnourishment of her disabled 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Supreme Court is seen Wednesday, June 29, 2022 in Washington.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Castro-Huerta has since pleaded guilty to a federal charge of child neglect in exchange for a seven-year prison sentence, although he has not been formally convicted.

The 5-4 ruling reduced a 2020 ruling that much of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation. The first ruling left the state unable to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes on tribal lands that include most of Tulsa.


A state court later ruled that the Supreme Court’s decision also stripped the state of its ability to prosecute anyone for crimes committed on tribal lands if the victim or perpetrator was Native American. This would have left the federal government with sole authority to prosecute such cases, and federal officials acknowledged that they lacked the resources to prosecute all of the crimes with which they were charged.

But the new High Court ruling said the state can also only intervene when the victims are tribesmen.

“The state’s interest in protecting victims of crime includes both Indian and non-Indian victims,” ​​Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court.

FILE: Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch stands during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021.

FILE: Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch stands during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021.
(Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, pool, file)

After the 2020 ruling, about 43% of Oklahoma is now considered Indian Country, and the question of the state’s ability to prosecute these crimes “suddenly took on immense significance,” Kavanaugh wrote.

In a dissent joined by the three liberal members of the court, Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote that the decision “allows Oklahoma to encroach on a feature of tribal sovereignty recognized since the founding.”

“One can only hope that the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this nation’s promises, even if we failed today to deliver on ours,” Gorsuch wrote.

Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe was “disappointed by this decision,” but it did not diminish the tribe’s commitment to fulfilling its security responsibilities. public and to protect Oklahomans on its reservations and throughout the state.

He said the court “failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied the statutes of Congress, and accepted ‘lawless disregard for Cherokee sovereignty,'” citing Gorsuch’s dissent in part.

The Supreme Court case involved the Muscogee reservation, but later rulings upheld the historic reservations of other Native American tribes in Oklahoma, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw, and Seminole nations.

The Muscogee Nation called the decision “an alarming setback for justice on our reservation.”


“Tribal governments, in conjunction with the federal government, are in the best position to protect our people and administer justice on our reservations,” the tribe said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nohemi M. Moore