Legal Lapses: Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

Swasti Singhai, Final Focus Editor

Art by Ella Jiang

On June 29, the Supreme Court erased 200 years of precedent by expanding state jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in Native American county.

Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta is a non-Native American, who was charged by the state of Oklahoma for child neglect towards his step-daughter, a Native American. While his case was ongoing, another case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, held that the Creek Nation’s establishment in eastern Oklahoma remained Indian county. 

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later recognized that similarly, other Indigenous reservations in Oklahoma would be classified as Indian county. Thus, Castro-Huerta, who resides in Tulsa, included within eastern Oklahoma, argued that only the federal government, and not the state, had the jurisdiction to prosecute him. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Kavanaugh and joined by Justice Alito, Roberts, Barrett, and Thomas, states that cases such as William v. United States, which suggest that states lack jurisdiction over crimes by non-Native Americans to Native Americans, are no longer relevant because “the idea of territorial separation has long since been abandoned.” The five justices repeatedly argued that “Indian county” is part of the state, and not separate from it, a claim opposed by tribal sovereignty. 

Public Law 280 gave similar power to certain states in 1953, granting them jurisdiction over crimes by or against Native Americans in tribal lands. The law was largely unpopular, and Congress later revised it to require tribal consent before States were granted jurisdiction. 

To date, Oklahoma’s state constitution does not assume jurisdiction over tribal lands, nor has Oklahoma “sought or obtained tribal consent to the exercise of its jurisdiction,” as stated in the Court’s dissenting opinion.

Many native leaders have spoken out against the ruling, with the Principal Chief of Muscogee Nation, David Hill, stating that the case is a “wrong direction for public safety [on reservations]” because the best solution is to empower those who are most motivated to protect our citizen, and its tribal Governments.”

According to the McCain Institute, in tribal areas, out of 239 encounters that Native Americans had with the state police, 89 were fatal– an issue exacerbated with laws like Public Law 280, which resulted in greater state law enforcement present in native lands. Justice Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion states that “This case has less to do with where Mr. Castro-Huerta serves his time and much more to do with Oklahoma’s effort to gain a legal foothold for its wish to exercise jurisdiction over crimes involving tribal members on tribal lands…The real party in interest here isn’t Mr. Castro-Huerta but the Cherokee, a Tribe of 400,000 members with its own government. Yet the Cherokee have no voice as parties in these proceedings.” 

It’s ironic, considering the United States was founded on the principle of representation in government, the idea that another nation cannot impose laws on us without our consent. But the question presented in the case of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, whether the state and federal government have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in tribal lands, is exactly that. It seeks to impose laws on  a land that was given no representation.  

But beyond that, from the Trail of Tears until present-day, the US government has allowed and perpetuated abuses against Native Americans. At the very least, as sovereigns, tribes should have the right to exercise criminal laws within their lands. As the Law of Nations states, “A sovereign nation has exclusive jurisdiction to punish offenses against its laws committed within its borders.” But this ruling proves that tribes aren’t viewed as the sovereign nations that they are. For now, we can only fight alongside Natives Americans until the federal government truly grants tribes sovereignty—not just in theory, but by practicality.