Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta: States can prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in Indian country
The federal government and states have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in Indian country, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 29 in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta.
Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta was convicted in Oklahoma state court of child neglect of his stepdaughter for not feeding her and requiring her to live in horrible conditions. He sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Castro-Huerta is not Native American, but his stepdaughter was. The offense occurred in Tulsa.
While his appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2020, decided McGirt v. Oklahoma. McGirt held Congress never disestablished the Creek Nation’s reservation in eastern Oklahoma, and that much of the state, including Tulsa, were in Indian country.
Following McGirt, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the State lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Castro-Huerta, and vacated his conviction. The court held the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans in Indian country.
The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve jurisdictional issues that have arisen since McGirt.
The Court, in a 5-4 opinion, reversed, and held Oklahoma has concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute.
“[T]he Court’s precedents establish that Indian country is part of a State’s territory and that, unless preempted, States have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian country,” the Court said.
A State’s jurisdiction in Indian country can be preempted by federal law, or when the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe on tribal self-government, the Court said.
But neither condition applies here, the Court ruled.
The federal General Crimes Act grants the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute crimes in Indian country, the Court said.
“By its terms, the Act does not preempt the State’s authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country,” the Court said. “The text of the Act simply ‘extend[s]’ federal law to Indian country, leaving untouched the background principle of state jurisdiction over crimes committed within the State, including Indian country.”
To determine whether exercise of state jurisdiction would infringe on tribal self-government, the Court must balance tribal, federal, and state interests, the Court said.
The exercise of state jurisdiction does not infringe on tribal self-government because tribes generally lack criminal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans, such as Castro Huerta, against Native Americans, even in Indian country, the Court said.
“[A] state prosecution of a non-Indian does not involve the exercise of state power over any Indian or over any tribe,” the Court said.
State prosecution does not harm federal interests because “State prosecution would supplement federal authority, not supplant federal authority,” the Court said.
Finally, “the State has a strong sovereign interest in ensuring public safety and criminal justice within its territory and in protecting all crime victims,” the Court said.
“We conclude that the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country,” the Court said.
Dissenting opinion suggests issue not over
Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.
Since the early 1800’s, the Supreme Court had recognized that “Native American Tribes retain their sovereignty unless and until Congress ordains otherwise,” Gorsuch said. “Where this Court once stood firm, today it wilts,” Gorsuch said.
“After the Cherokee’s exile to what became Oklahoma, the federal government promised the Tribe that it would remain forever free from interference by state authorities,” Gorsuch said.
Oklahoma’s assertion of jurisdiction is an “unlawful power grab at the expense of the Cherokee,” Gorsuch said. Oklahoma has a long history of seizing Indian land by “subterfuge,” he said.
Gorsuch noted the Cherokee themselves oppose State jurisdiction.
Other federal laws and treaties are contrary to the Court’s opinion, and are left “unresolved” by it, Gorsuch said.
“Nothing in today’s decision could or does begin to preclude the Cherokee or other Tribes from pressing arguments along any of these lines in future cases,” Gorsuch concluded.