The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that much of eastern Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation, a decision that will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases. The ruling hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state. “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling is about jurisdiction, not land ownership. Now, certain major crimes committed within the boundaries of reservations must be prosecuted in federal court rather than state court if a Native American is involved. Less serious crimes involving Native Americans on reservation land will be handled in tribal courts. Many past decisions are now considered wrongful convictions because the state lacked jurisdiction. A number of criminal defendants who have been convicted will now have grounds to challenge their convictions.