The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Landmark McGirt Ruling

  • July 29th, 2022 — by Zachary Evans — Category: Miscellaneous

  • Disclaimer: This blog seeks to provide a brief summary of rulings and opinions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. As such, the legal concepts and terminology (e.g., Indian and Indian Country) discussed reflect language used in statutes passed by Congress and the practice of federal American Indian law.

    In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court released its 5-4 decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. The Court found the federal government and states both have authority to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed against Indians in Indian Country (or, all land located within the boundaries of an Indian reservation). Castro-Huerta narrows the reach of a previous U.S. Supreme Court opinion, McGirt v. Oklahoma, issued two years ago. In McGirt, the Supreme Court limited Oklahoma’s jurisdiction over crimes in Indian Country when it concluded that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation had never been disestablished by Congress. McGirt’s impact on the state of Oklahoma extended well beyond the controversy it sought to resolve, potentially implicating jurisdiction over water use, regulation, and pollution control. The Court’s opinion in Castro-Huerta similarly may have far reaching affects impacting Tribal sovereignty across the United States.

    Victor Castro-Huerta, a non-Indian, was convicted in Oklahoma state court of child neglect for severely under-nourishing his stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which the Court found that Oklahoma lacked authority to issue a conviction against a member of the Seminole Nation because the alleged crimes were perpetrated within the boundaries of a reservation. In light of the McGirt decision, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Castro-Huerta’s argument that the state lacked jurisdiction and vacated his conviction.

    The Castro-Huerta opinion first charts the Supreme Court’s shift away from the idea that Indian Country is separate from a state’s territory, a precedent set by Worcester v. Georgia (1832). In Organized Village of Kake v. Egan (1962), in which two Tribes opposed Alaskan state fish trapping laws, the Court detailed how—since the latter half of the 1800s—it had held that reservations were part of states and therefore subject to the laws of the state unless explicitly forbidden by federal law. Specifically, the Court pointed to United States v. McBratney (1882) and Draper v. United States (1896), both of which held that states can prosecute crimes perpetrated on reservations by non-Indians against non-Indians. To the Court, these precedents established that Indian Country could not be considered separate from the states in which it was located, and, unless barred by federal law, states could try criminal defendants for crimes committed on reservations.

    In deciding if the federal government could claim exclusive jurisdiction based on the argument that state jurisdiction would infringe upon tribal self-government, the Court weighed the interests of the Tribe, federal government, and state as it had in White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker. The Court found that allowing concurrent state jurisdiction did not deprive the Tribe of its authority to prosecute crimes, nor would it wholly supplant federal jurisdiction. Importantly, the Court identified Oklahoma’s prevailing interest in preserving public safety, administering criminal justice within its boundaries, and protecting both crime victims regardless of their status as an enrolled Tribal member or not. The Court reversed and remanded the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeal’s ruling.

    The dissent expresses concern that the Castro-Huerta decision greatly expands the power of states to make jurisdictional claims over criminal cases in Indian Country, thereby diminishing the sovereignty of Tribal Nations. In finding that states and the federal government have concurrent jurisdiction over these types of crimes, the Court narrows—but does not overrule—McGirt v. Oklahoma. However, as Justice Neil Gorsuch details in the dissent, the Court’s majority overrules the 200-year-old Worcester precedent that Tribal nations retained sovereignty until or unless Congress decided otherwise. As Justice Kavanaugh wrote stating the opposite, “[t]he default is that States have criminal jurisdiction in Indian country unless that jurisdiction is preempted.” This case certainly impacts Tribal sovereignty, and it is unknown how this decision may impact other jurisdictional management frameworks, such a changes to natural resource management and conservation.

  • Zachary Evans
    NSGLC Research Associate

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