By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday widened the power of states over Native American tribes and undercut its own 2020 ruling that had expanded Native American tribal authority in Oklahoma, handing a victory to Republican officials in that state.
The court ruled 5-4 in favor of Oklahoma over the state’s attempt to prosecute Victor Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American convicted of child neglect in a crime committed against a Native American child – his 5-year-old stepdaughter – on the Cherokee Nation reservation.
The change of course only two years after the previous ruling in a case called McGirt v. Oklahoma was made possible by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the court by Republican former President Donald Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, as he did in 2020, joined with the court’s liberal bloc in favor of Native American interests, but its expanded conservative majority meant that this time he was in the minority.
A state court threw out Castro-Huerta’s conviction, saying the Supreme Court’s ruling in the McGirt case deprived state authorities of jurisdiction in his case and gave responsibility to federal courts.
As a result of the McGirt ruling, about 3,600 cases every year in Oklahoma were set to fall under federal instead of state jurisdiction.
In the McGirt decision, the Supreme Court recognized about half of Oklahoma – much of the eastern part of the state – as Native American reservation land beyond the jurisdiction of state authorities. That ruling, criticized by Governor Kevin Stitt and other Republicans, meant that many crimes on the land in question involving Native Americans would need to be prosecuted in tribal or federal courts.
The state already prosecutes crimes committed in the affected land in which no Native Americans are involved. Tribal courts handle crimes committed by and against Native Americans.
Tribes had welcomed the McGirt ruling as a recognition of their sovereignty. The Supreme Court in January rejected Oklahoma’s request to outright overturn it.
Castro-Huerta was convicted in state court of neglecting his stepdaughter, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals last year threw out that conviction because of the 2020 precedent. Castro-Huerta by then was already indicted for the same underlying offense by federal authorities, transferred to federal custody and pleaded guilty to child neglect. He has not yet been sentenced.
There are 574 federally recognized tribes in total although some states have very little tribal land. The population of Native Americans and Alaska Natives combined in the United States is 3.7 million, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)