The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. The court's decision in McGirt vs. Oklahoma could have repercussions for hundreds of state convictions in the region. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
July 9 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a large swath of eastern Oklahoma is still considered the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, meaning state prosecutors don't have authority to pursue cases against American Indians there.
The high court voted 5-4 in favor of a Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for child molestation. McGirt, 71, said his case didn't belong in state courts because the crime was committed on reservation land.
The reservation at one time spanned about 3 million acres and included most of the city of Tulsa.
Thursday's ruling could have repercussions for hundreds of convictions won by state prosecutors in the area.
"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.
"In reaching our conclusion about what the law demands of us today, we do not pretend to foretell the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially ones that have gone unappreciated for so long. But it is unclear why pessimism should rule the day.
"With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners."
The ruling also throws out the murder conviction of Patrick Murphy, another member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The decision, however, doesn't mean either man will necessarily be set free. Rather, it means they must be prosecuted under the Major Crimes Act. Only federal prosecutors can bring a case in crimes committed by or against American Indians on reservation land.
Gorsuch was joined in the majority opinion by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.
Roberts, who wrote the minority opinion, said considering the "vast area" Native American land prevents the state from being able to prosecute serious crimes.
"On top of that, the court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma," he wrote. "The decision today 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."
Thursday was the final day of the Supreme Court's term, which began last October and was extended into July due to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening conference to begin the court's next term is scheduled for Sept. 29.