One Year Ago: Historic McGirt V. Oklahoma Ruling Reshapes Tribal Jurisdiction

Friday, July 9th 2021, 5:14 pm
By: Jonathan Cooper

Friday marks one year since the historic Supreme Court ruling on tribal jurisdiction, transforming Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

McGirt v. Oklahoma changed the way crimes are prosecuted in eastern Oklahoman involving Native American victims and defendants.

July 9th, 2020 is a day many tribal leaders celebrate.

"The most important case in Indian law in generations," said Chuck Hoskin Jr, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

The narrow 5 to 4 ruling in McGirt vs Oklahoma ruled that Indian reservations in most of eastern Oklahoma were never disestablished at statehood.

Therefore, the state does not have jurisdiction to prosecute cases involving Native Americans that happened on tribal land. Now thousands of state cases dating back decades could be re-tried in federal court.

"All four million Oklahomans have a stake in this, we have to do our jobs,” said Hoskin.

This week, News on 6 sat down with the leaders of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Muscogee Nations, who are proud of their accomplishments the past year.

"We've increased the number of people involved in criminal justice, the ones who do the prosecution,” said Bill Anoatubby, Governor of the Chickasaw Nation. “We added funding to each one of these entities to have what they needed."

But others see the ruling differently. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler calls it a crisis because thousands of victims and their families are now having to relive trauma from cases settled years ago.

"I've got a death penalty case that we're having to deal with and to tell a family that 15 years ago when we got that case resolved that they may have to go back and re-litigate that entire tragedy is hard,” said Kunzweiler.

Kunzweiler said the federal government is also overwhelmed with cases. According to the FBI, their case volume is ‘unprecedented’ and they've had to prioritize violent crimes over others.

Governor Kevin Stitt has also been critical. Working with local DA's he said going back to 2005, the McGirt decision will impact 76,863 cases, and that number could go higher.

The governor also said he may sue the federal government for clarification because he said the feds are now interpreting the case to involve civil matters, not just criminal ones.

Related Story: Governor Stitt Says State Might Sue Federal Government Over McGirt Jurisdiction Interpretation

"Basically, they just ripped away from the sovereignty of the state of Oklahoma," said Stitt.

The U.S. attorneys in both the Eastern and Northern Districts of Oklahoma have also taken on extra caseloads.

So far, the Northern District has taken on 850 additional cases. 111 cases of those are homicides and 182 are crimes against children.

The Eastern District has taken on 771 additional cases. The Eastern District has also hired 21 new attorneys, one victim specialist and four contractors.