The United States Supreme Court has ruled that about half of Oklahoma is owned by Native Americans, in a landmark case that also quashed a conviction for child rape.
The judges decided 5-4 that an eastern piece of the state, including its second largest city, Tulsa, should be recognized as part of a reserve.
Jimcy McGirt, who was convicted in 1997 of raping a girl, carried the case.
He cited the historic claim of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation on the lands where the assault occurred.
What does the decision mean?
Thursday’s McGirt v Oklahoma decision is considered one of the most extensive cases for Native Americans before the highest court in the United States for decades.
The decision means that certain members of a tribe found guilty by the state courts for offenses committed in the territory in question can now challenge their convictions.
Only federal prosecutors will have the power to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes in the region.
Tribesmen who live inside the borders may also be exempt from state taxes, according to the Reuters news agency.
Some 1.8 million people – about 15% of whom are Native Americans – live on land, which spans three million acres.
What did the judges say?
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Tory appointed by President Donald Trump, sided with the court’s four Liberals and also wrote the opinion.
He talked about the Trail of Tears, the forced resettlement of Native Americans in the 19th century, including the Nation Creek, in Oklahoma.
The US government then declared that the new land would belong to the tribes in perpetuity.
Justice Gorsuch wrote: “Today we are asked if the land promised by these treaties remains an Indian reserve for the purposes of federal criminal law.
“Because Congress has not said otherwise, we are keeping the word of the government. “
What about the rape case?
The decision overturned McGirt’s prison sentence. However, he could still be tried by a federal court.
McGirt, now 71, was convicted in 1997 in Wagoner County for raping a four-year-old girl.
He did not contest his guilt before the Supreme Court, but argued that only the federal authorities should have had the right to prosecute him.
McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation.
His lawyer, Ian Heath Gershengorn, told CNBC, “The Supreme Court reaffirmed today that when the United States makes promises, the courts will keep those promises.”
How could the Oklahoma criminal justice system be affected?
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision would destabilize state courts.
He wrote: “The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hampered and decades of previous convictions may well be overturned.
“Today’s decision creates significant uncertainty for the continuing authority of the state in any area that affects Indian affairs, from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law. ”
An analysis by The Atlantic magazine of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections records revealed that 1,887 Native Americans were in prison at the end of last year for crimes committed within the boundaries of the tribal territory.
But less than one in 10 of these cases would qualify for a new federal trial, according to research.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, former chief justice of the Muscogee Nation’s Supreme Court, dismissed the remarks as legal chaos.
He told the Tulsa World newspaper: “All the tales of the falling sky are questionable at best.
“This would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans committing crimes within the borders. “
How did the other tribal leaders react?
In a joint statement, the five Oklahoma tribes – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole and Muscogee Nation – welcomed the decision.
They are committed to working with federal and state authorities to agree on shared jurisdiction over the territory.
“Nations and the state are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming the jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws and regulations that support the public security, our economy and private property rights, “said the statement.