Aug 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Oklahoma AG asks Supreme Court to overturn landmark ruling on tribal sovereignty

U.S. Supreme Court

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg /Getty Images

Oklahoma's attorney general asked the Supreme Court on Friday to overturn its 2020 ruling affirming tribal sovereignty, arguing the decision led to a "criminal-justice crisis."

Why it matters: The petition comes one day after Patrick Murphy, an Oklahoma death row inmate whose challenge led to the ruling, was convicted again in federal court for murder and kidnapping, AP reports.

Newly appointed Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor argues in the petition that the high court's ruling has resulted in thousands of state prisoners challenging decades old convictions, many of which can’t be prosecuted again.

Context: The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, last year that a large part of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, meaning Oklahoma prosecutors didn't have the authority to pursue criminal charges against Murphy.

  • "The decision... now drives thousands of crime victims to seek justice from federal and tribal prosecutors whose offices are not equipped to handle those demands," the petition states.
  • "Numerous crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted, endangering public safety."

What they're saying: O'Connor's petition requests that the Supreme Court consider narrowing the application of its ruling to allow violent criminals convicted before the ruling to stay in state prisons.

  • It also asks the court to grant the state of Oklahoma authority to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against tribal citizens on Native land.

The other side: Attorneys for the some of the tribes say the state’s warnings are exaggerated and federal and tribal courts are trying to manage the caseload.

  • Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. accused O'Connor and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who is a Cherokee Nation citizen, of pursuing an "anti-Indian political agenda."
    • "The governor has never attempted to cooperate with the tribes to protect all Oklahomans," Hoskin said in a statement. "It is perfectly clear that it has always been his intent to destroy Oklahoma’s reservations and the sovereignty of Oklahoma tribes, no matter what the cost might be."

Our thought bubble: Native American activists say if state officials want to prosecute non-tribal members, the state should enter agreements with tribes instead of trying to get the federal government to overrule tribal sovereignty, Axios' Russell Contreras said.

  • Tulsa attorney Brett Chapman, an enrolled member of the Pawnee tribe, said state officials are just being adversarial and trying to ignore tribal sovereignty. “McGirt is the law of the land and they need to get over it,” he told Axios.

Worth noting: O'Connor filed the petition in connection to Shaun Bosse's case. Bosse, a death row inmate, was convicted in 2010 of killing his girlfriend and her two children.

  • Even though Bosse is not a tribal citizen, his victims were, and the killings took place inside the Chickasaw Nation reservation.
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