The Supreme Court Just Expanded States’ Power to Prosecute Crimes on Tribal Land

The case is a crucial one in the fight over tribal sovereignty.

STRMX/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that Oklahoma has the authority to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes against a Native person on tribal lands. 

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, said that both the state and federal government have jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes. The case, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, had been viewed as a pivotal one that cuts right into the heart of the fight over tribal sovereignty. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion. 

Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by the three liberal justice in his dissent, wrote that when the Cherokee were exiled to Oklahoma, they were promised that they would be free from state interference. “Where this Court once stood firm, today it wilts,” Gorsuch wrote. “Where our predecessors refused to participate in one State’s unlawful power grab at the expense of the Cherokee, today’s Court accedes to another’s.”

In 2015, Oklahoma state prosecutors charged Victor Castro-Huerta for the malnourishment and neglect of his five-year-old disabled stepdaughter. He was eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison. Castro-Huerta is not Native, but the victim, his stepdaughter, is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the abuse took place on the Cherokee Reservation. Castro-Huerta challenged the decision by arguing that under the 2020 Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, he can only be federally prosecuted. McGirt held that nearly half of Oklahoma is tribal land, and as such, under the Major Crimes Act, Oklahoma cannot prosecute crimes by Native citizens on tribal lands without federal approval. 

In this case, Oklahoma argued that McGirt does not apply because the defendant was Native. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had previously ruled that the state does not have the right to prosecute non-Native people for crimes with a Native victim on tribal land, but the Supreme Court disagreed. 

Fact:

In-depth journalism that investigates the powerful takes real money and is so damn important right now.But it doesn’t take a Mother Jones investigation to know that billionaires and corporations will never fund the type of reporting (like they do politicians) we do that exists to help bring about change. Instead, our mission-driven journalism is made possible by people power, and has been for 46 years now since our founding as a non-profit.

In “TITLE TK” Monica Bauerlein writes about the perilous moment we’re in, and why it’s so important that we raise $325,000 by the time November’s midterms are decided so we can be ready to throw everything we have at the big issues facing the nation no matter what happens. Please help MoJo’s people-powered journalism with a donation today.

$400,000 to go!

payment methods

Fact:

In-depth journalism that investigates the powerful takes real money and is so damn important right now.But it doesn’t take a Mother Jones investigation to know that billionaires and corporations will never fund the type of reporting (like they do politicians) we do that exists to help bring about change. Instead, our mission-driven journalism is made possible by people power, and has been for 46 years now since our founding as a non-profit.

In “TITLE TK” Monica Bauerlein writes about the perilous moment we’re in, and why it’s so important that we raise $325,000 by the time November’s midterms are decided so we can be ready to throw everything we have at the big issues facing the nation no matter what happens. Please help MoJo’s people-powered journalism with a donation today.

$400,000 to go!

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate