There has been much political gnashing of teeth since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that much of eastern Oklahoma is under tribal/federal legal jurisdiction. At issue is tribal sovereignty to handle criminal cases committed on Indian land.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, conservative justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that treaty legislation establishing jurisdiction had never been repealed, and, thus, was still in effect.
He observed: “Mustering the broad social consensus required to pass new legislation is a deliberately hard business under our Constitution. Faced with this daunting task, Congress sometimes might wish an inconvenient reservation would simply disappear. But wishes don’t make for laws, and saving the political branches the embarrassment of disestablishing a reservation is not one of our constitutionally assigned prerogatives.”
The U.S. government honoring treaty rights. What a concept.
And while the Muscogee (Creek) Nation responded with praise that the high court “kept the United States’ sacred promise,” many Oklahoma politicians have expressed outrage.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has been apoplectic since the ruling, and last month, after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals extended federal/tribal jurisdiction to a portion of Ottawa County, KTUL-TV quoted him as saying, “Oklahoma is literally being torn into pieces.”
Earlier, KFOR-TV cited Attorney General John O’Connor calling the ruling “’recklessly overbroad’ and said it is throwing some Oklahomans into the danger of having no law enforcement show up to their calls for help.”
Our leaders reveal the vacancies on their reading lists.
This is Oklahoma, birthplace of Tony Hillerman, whose detective novels feature Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito solving mysteries across the Navajo Reservation. Recurring characters include county deputies, state lawmen and FBI officers.
Aimée Thurlo, joined later by her husband David, created Ella Clah, another Navajo policewoman – with same expanded cast.
And, out in Wyoming, Jesuit Father John O’Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden made the Wind River Reservation safer for everyone thanks to the pen of Margaret Coel.
These books provide a blueprint for unread Oklahoma politicians on the future of law enforcement in the state. Basically, every agency works its own side of the street, transfers cases to the proper jurisdiction and lends a hand across the lines when circumstances demand.
I have no doubt that real life will follow the fictional model, and there will be random, territorial jerks too insecure to work with others. Similar disputes likely already exist among those with sensitive toes.
But, nothing along those lines has risen to the point of wide publicity.
And, if New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming can operate under this system, Oklahoma should be able to as well.
Murders and other serious crimes that fall under McGirt will be handled by federal courts. And, KTUL reported at the first of the year, “Federal prosecutors and support staff from every corner of the country are in Oklahoma helping U.S. Attorneys’ offices that are so overwhelmed with case work because of the Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling.
And, the Associated Press reported in September, “A judicial panel has recommended the creation of five additional federal judgeships in Oklahoma because of an increased caseload due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding crimes committed on tribal lands.”
So, the state would have more courts – at federal, not state – expense.
The number of cases to be transferred has yet to be determined, and this does highlight the one detrimental outcome of McGirt. Surviving family and friends of victims might have to relive the horrors of losing loved ones.
This is unequivocally rotten.
Interims and transitions are often messy. The fault does not lie with McGirt, but with those who ignored treaty guarantees for decades. That is no consolation, but it might help direct the blame in the proper direction.
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party. Longer versions of his columns can be found at scdpok.us or facebook.com/SCDPOK/.)