The Supreme Court grappled Tuesday with whether an Indian tribe retains control over a vast swath of eastern Oklahoma in a case involving a Native American who was sentenced to death for murder. Some justices said they fear a ruling for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation could have big consequences for criminal cases, but also tax and other regulatory issues on more than 3 million acres of Creek Nation territory, including most of Tulsa, Oklahoma's second largest city. The issue is before the high court in the case of Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe member in 1999. A federal appeals court threw out his conviction because it found the state lacked authority to prosecute Murphy. The appeals court ruled that 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.
Lawyers for the state and Trump administration, supporting Oklahoma, told the justices that the practical effects of ruling for Murphy would be dramatic, after more than 100 years of state control over the area, the AP reports. Violent criminals could go free and the state would lose its ability to tax a chunk of the population, the lawyers said. Other Native American prisoners and defendants in Oklahoma have asked to have their convictions overturned or their cases thrown out as a result. But lawyers for Murphy and the Creek Nation said fears of chaos that would result from a ruling for Murphy are overstated. The Creek Nation already has agreements with 40 local governments that allow its police to work collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies, said Riyaz Kanji, representing the tribe. The court's liberal justices seemed generally more sympathetic to the tribe, while the conservatives appeared likely to side with the state. (Click for more, including one potential wrinkle.)