WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday narrowed the scope of its landmark decision for 2020, declaring much of eastern Oklahoma to be within the territories of the Indian reservations, allowing state authorities to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in the reserves.
The ruling upheld the basic stance of the 2020 decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, which stated that Native Americans who committed crimes on the reservations, which encompass much of the city of Tulsa, cannot be prosecuted by state or federal officials. local law enforcement and must instead face justice in tribal or federal courts.
Wednesday’s vote was 5 to 4, with Judge Amy Comey Barrett, who was not on court when the McGirt case was decided, casting the casting vote.
The new case involved Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who was convicted of seriously neglecting his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. In 2015, she was found dehydrated, emaciated and covered in lice and feces, weighing just 19 pounds.
Mr. Castro-Huerta, who is not an Indian, was prosecuted by state authorities, convicted in state court and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Following the McGirt decision, an Oklahoma court of appeals overturned his conviction on the grounds that the crime had taken place in Indian Country. The appeals court based on previous rulings that crimes committed on reservations by or against Indians could not be prosecuted by state authorities.
Federal prosecutors then continued charges against Mr. Castro-Huerta, and he pleaded guilty to child neglect in federal court and entered into a plea deal calling for a seven-year prison term. His sentencing is scheduled for August.
Prosecution in a tribal court was not an option in the case, as tribal courts generally have no jurisdiction to try non-Indians for crimes against Native Americans.
When asking the Supreme Court to intervene in the case, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, No. 21-429, Oklahoma’s Attorney General John M. O’Connor said the judges had “never firmly held that states have no concurrent authority to prosecute non-Indians for state crimes committed against Indians in the Indian country.”
Attorneys for Mr. Castro-Huerta responded that the Supreme Court, lower courts and Congress had all said crimes committed on reservations by or against Indians could not be prosecuted by state authorities.
In his petition for review, Mr. O’Connor also asked the Supreme Court to answer a second question: whether the McGirt decision should be reversed. However, in its order for review, the Supreme Court said it would only address the narrower question of whether states can prosecute non-Indians for crimes against Indians on reservations.
Writing for the McGirt majority, which was passed by a vote of 5 to 4, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch said the court justified a commitment stemming from an ugly history of forced relocations and broken treaties.
“At the far end of the Trail of Tears lay a promise,” he wrote, along with what was then the four-member liberal wing of the court. “Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation was assured that their new land in the West would be safe forever.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. predicted. that the decision would cause chaos.
“The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hampered, and decades of past convictions could very well be thrown away,” he wrote. “In addition, the court has thoroughly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg died a few months after the ruling was issued, and her replacement, Judge Barrett, raised the possibility that the court might move in a different direction in the new case.