In a stunning blow to Oklahoma’s state government, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that much of eastern Oklahoma is located on an Indian reservation.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices declared that Congress never diminished or disestablished the land as a reservation. Major crimes committed by a tribal member on their own reservation, in effect, must be prosecuted by the federal government in accordance with the Major Crimes Act.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
“While there can be no question that Congress established a reservation for the Creek Nation, it’s equally clear that Congress has since broken more than a few of its promises to the Tribe,” he wrote. “Not least, the land described in the parties’ treaties, once undivided and held by the Tribe, is now fractured into pieces.”
The ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma could have major implications for the long-running dispute over who has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes by enrolled tribal members on tribal land, as well as what constitutes tribal land. The state of Oklahoma and tribes in the state have been waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on the matter for years.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas. Thomas also wrote a separate dissent.
Roberts said the court’s ruling will have major consequences for the area’s residents, who are largely not part of any tribe, and state laws, including those pertaining to zoning, taxation, family and environmental law.
“The rediscovered reservations encompass the entire eastern half of the State—19 million acres that are home to 1.8 million people, only 10%–15% of whom are Indians,” he wrote. “Across this vast area,...