The United States Supreme Court ruled that about half of Oklahoma belongs to Native Americans, in an emblematic case that also quashed a child rape sentence.
The judges decided 5-4 that an eastern part of the state, including its second largest city, Tulsa, should be recognized as part of a reserve.
Jimcy McGirt, convicted in 1997 of raping a girl, brought up the case.
He cited the historic claim of the Muscogee (Creek) nation on earth where the assault occurred.
What does the sentence mean?
Thursday’s decision in McGirt / Oklahoma is considered one of the most far-reaching cases for Native Americans before the highest American court in recent decades.
The ruling means that some tribe members found guilty in state courts for crimes committed on the land in question can now challenge their beliefs.
Only federal prosecutors will have the power to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes in the area.
Tribe members who live within borders may also be exempt from state taxes, according to the Reuters news agency.
About 1.8 million people – about 15% of whom are Native Americans – live on land, which spans three million acres.
What did the judges say?
Judge Neil Gorsuch, a conservative nominated by U.S. President Donald Trump, sided with the court’s four liberals and also wrote the opinion.
He was referring to the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of 19th century Native Americans, including the Creek Nation, to Oklahoma.
At the time, the United States government declared that the new land would belong to the tribes forever.
Judge Gorsuch wrote: “Today we are asked whether the land promised by these treaties remains an Indian reserve for the purposes of federal criminal law.
“Since Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to his word.”
And the case of rape?
The ruling quashed McGirt’s prison sentence. However, he could be tried before the federal court.
McGirt, who is now 71 years old, was convicted in 1997 in County Wagoner for raping a four-year-old girl.
He did not contest his guilt before the Supreme Court, but argued that only federal authorities should have had the right to prosecute him.
McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation.
His lawyer, Ian Heath Gershengorn, told CNBC: “The Supreme Court reiterated today that when the United States makes promises, the courts will keep those promises.”
How could Oklahoma’s criminal justice system be affected?
In a dissenting opinion, Supreme Judge John Roberts said the decision would destabilize state courts.
He wrote: “The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be compromised and decades of past beliefs could be eliminated.
“Today’s decision creates significant uncertainty for continued state authority over any area affecting Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”
An analysis by the Oklahoma Corrections Department’s The Atlantic magazine found that 1,887 Native Americans were in prison late last year for crimes within the confines of tribal territory.
But less than one in 10 of these cases would qualify for a new federal process, according to the research.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, a former supreme judge of the Muscogee nation’s Supreme Court, dismissed the legal chaos speech.
He told Tulsa World newspaper: “All the narratives that fall from the sky were at best doubtful.
“This would only apply to a small subgroup of Native Americans who commit crimes within borders.”
How did the other tribal leaders react?
In a joint statement, the Five Oklahoma Tribes – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole and Muscogee Nation – welcomed the ruling.
They pledged to work with federal and state authorities to agree on a shared jurisdiction on earth.
“Nations and the state are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and self-government rights while affirming understandings, procedures, laws and jurisdictional regulations in support of public safety, our economy and property rights private, “he said.