Court: Half of Oklahoma Is On Native American Land

Neil Gorsuch sides with liberals in 5-4 ruling that will affect criminal prosecutions
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 9, 2020 1:12 PM CDT

(Newser) – The Supreme Court has news for people who reside in what is roughly the eastern half of Oklahoma: They are living on an American Indian reservation. In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the court ruled that the land, including Tulsa, falls within the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Reservation, reports the Wall Street Journal. The central question was whether Oklahoma's statehood in 1907 dissolved the reservation, and the court ruled that it did not. The New York Times calls it "one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades." The impact? It will mostly affect the prosecution of crimes against Native Americans on the reservation, and could extend to civil matters as well, per the Oklahoman. Specifically, the ruling overturns the conviction in state court of a Native American man convicted of molesting a child. The man had argued that the state had no authority to try him and that his case should have been handled in federal court; that may now happen, per the AP.

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  • Majority: “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch, who sided with the court's four more liberal members in the majority. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
  • Dissent: Chief Justice John Roberts faulted the ruling in his dissent. “The State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out,” he wrote, adding that the decision "creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”
  • Tribe: “This is a historic day,” Principal Chief David Hill tells the Times. “This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.”
(Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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