McGirt v. Oklahoma

Decision Date09 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-9526,18-9526
Citation140 S.Ct. 2452,207 L.Ed.2d 985
Parties Jimcy MCGIRT, Petitioner v. OKLAHOMA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Ian H. Gershengorn, Washington, DC, Riyaz A. Kanji for Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, for Petitioner.

Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, for Respondent.

Ian Heath Gershengorn, Zachary C. Schauf, Allison M. Tjemsland* , Jenner & Block LLP, 1099 New York Ave., NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Mike Hunter, Attorney General of Oklahoma, Mithun Mansinghani, Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Jennifer Crabb, Asst. Attorney General, Bryan Cleveland, Randall Yates, Asst. Solicitors General, Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General, 313 NE Twenty-First St., Oklahoma City, OK, R. Reeves Anderson, Arnold & Porter, Kaye Scholer LLP, 370 Seventeenth St, Suite 4400, Denver, CO, Allon Kedem, Sally L. Pei, Stephen K. Wirth, Samuel F. Callahan, Arnold & Porter, Kaye Scholer LLP, 601 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice GORSUCH delivered the opinion of the Court.

On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever. In exchange for ceding "all their land, East of the Mississippi river," the U. S. government agreed by treaty that "[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians." Treaty With the Creeks, Arts. I, XIV, Mar. 24, 1832, 7 Stat. 366, 368 (1832 Treaty). Both parties settled on boundary lines for a new and "permanent home to the whole Creek nation," located in what is now Oklahoma. Treaty With the Creeks, preamble, Feb. 14, 1833, 7 Stat. 418 (1833 Treaty). The government further promised that "[no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves." 1832 Treaty, Art. XIV, 7 Stat. 368.

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.

I

At one level, the question before us concerns Jimcy McGirt. Years ago, an Oklahoma state court convicted him of three serious sexual offenses. Since then, he has argued in postconviction proceedings that the State lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and his crimes took place on the Creek Reservation. A new trial for his conduct, he has contended, must take place in federal court. The Oklahoma state courts hearing Mr. McGirt's arguments rejected them, so he now brings them here.

Mr. McGirt's appeal rests on the federal Major Crimes Act (MCA). The statute provides that, within "the Indian country," "[a]ny Indian who commits" certain enumerated offenses "against the person or property of another Indian or any other person" "shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of the above offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States." 18 U.S.C. § 1153(a). By subjecting Indians to federal trials for crimes committed on tribal lands, Congress may have breached its promises to tribes like the Creek that they would be free to govern themselves. But this particular incursion has its limits—applying only to certain enumerated crimes and allowing only the federal government to try Indians. State courts generally have no jurisdiction to try Indians for conduct committed in "Indian country." Negonsott v. Samuels , 507 U.S. 99, 102–103, 113 S.Ct. 1119, 122 L.Ed.2d 457 (1993).

The key question Mr. McGirt faces concerns that last qualification: Did he commit his crimes in Indian country? A neighboring provision of the MCA defines the term to include, among other things, "all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation." § 1151(a). Mr. McGirt submits he can satisfy this condition because he committed his crimes on land reserved for the Creek since the 19th century.

The Creek Nation has joined Mr. McGirt as amicus curiae . Not because the Tribe is interested in shielding Mr. McGirt from responsibility for his crimes. Instead, the Creek Nation participates because Mr. McGirt's personal interests wind up implicating the Tribe's. No one disputes that Mr. McGirt's crimes were committed on lands described as the Creek Reservation in an 1866 treaty and federal statute. But, in seeking to defend the state-court judgment below, Oklahoma has put aside whatever procedural defenses it might have and asked us to confirm that the land once given to the Creeks is no longer a reservation today.

At another level, then, Mr. McGirt's case winds up as a contest between State and Tribe. The scope of their dispute is limited; nothing we might say today could unsettle Oklahoma's authority to try non-Indians for crimes against non-Indians on the lands in question. See United States v. McBratney , 104 U.S. 621, 624, 26 L.Ed. 869 (1882). Still, the stakes are not insignificant. If Mr. McGirt and the Tribe are right, the State has no right to prosecute Indians for crimes committed in a portion of Northeastern Oklahoma that includes most of the city of Tulsa. Responsibility to try these matters would fall instead to the federal government and Tribe. Recently, the question has taken on more salience too. While Oklahoma state courts have rejected any suggestion that the lands in question remain a reservation, the Tenth Circuit has reached the opposite conclusion. Murphy v. Royal , 875 F.3d 896, 907–909, 966 (2017). We granted certiorari to settle the question. 589 U. S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 2026, 201 L.Ed.2d 27 (2018).

II

Start with what should be obvious: Congress established a reservation for the Creeks. In a series of treaties, Congress not only "solemnly guarantied" the land but also "establish[ed] boundary lines which will secure a country and permanent home to the whole Creek Nation of Indians." 1832 Treaty, Art. XIV, 7 Stat. 368; 1833 Treaty, preamble, 7 Stat. 418. The government's promises weren't made gratuitously. Rather, the 1832 Treaty acknowledged that "[t]he United States are desirous that the Creeks should remove to the country west of the Mississippi" and, in service of that goal, required the Creeks to cede all lands in the East. Arts. I, XII, 7 Stat. 366, 367. Nor were the government's promises meant to be delusory. Congress twice assured the Creeks that "[the] Treaty shall be obligatory on the contracting parties, as soon as the same shall be ratified by the United States." 1832 Treaty, Art. XV, id ., at 368; see 1833 Treaty, Art. IX, 7 Stat. 420 ("agreement shall be binding and obligatory" upon ratification). Both treaties were duly ratified and enacted as law.

Because the Tribe's move west was ostensibly voluntary, Congress held out another assurance as well. In the statute that precipitated these negotiations, Congress authorized the President "to assure the tribe ... that the United States will forever secure and guaranty to them ... the country so exchanged with them." Indian Removal Act of 1830, § 3, 4 Stat. 412. "[A]nd if they prefer it," the bill continued, "the United States will cause a patent or grant to be made and executed to them for the same; Provided always , that such lands shall revert to the United States, if the Indians become extinct, or abandon the same." Ibid. If agreeable to all sides, a tribe would not only enjoy the government's solemn treaty promises; it would hold legal title to its lands.

It was an offer the Creek accepted. The 1833 Treaty fixed borders for what was to be a "permanent home to the whole Creek nation of Indians." 1833 Treaty, preamble, 7 Stat. 418. It also established that the "United States will grant a patent, in fee simple, to the Creek nation of Indians for the land assigned said nation by this treaty." Art. III, id. , at 419. That grant came with the caveat that "the right thus guaranteed by the United States shall be continued to said tribe of Indians, so long as they shall exist as a nation, and continue to occupy the country hereby assigned to them." Ibid. The promised patent formally issued in 1852. See Woodward v. De Graffenried , 238 U.S. 284, 293–294, 35 S.Ct. 764, 59 L.Ed. 1310 (1915).

These early treaties did not refer to the Creek lands as a "reservation"—perhaps because that word had not yet acquired such distinctive significance in federal Indian law. But we have found similar language in treaties from the same era sufficient to create a reservation. See Menominee Tribe v. United States , 391 U.S. 404, 405, 88 S.Ct. 1705, 20 L.Ed.2d 697 (1968) (grant of land " ‘for a home, to be held as Indian lands are held,’ " established a reservation). And later Acts of Congress left no room for doubt. In 1866, the United States entered yet another treaty with the Creek Nation. This agreement reduced the size of the land set aside for the Creek, compensating the Tribe at a price of 30 cents an acre. Treaty Between the United States and the Creek Nation of Indians, Art. III, June 14, 1866, 14 Stat. 786. But Congress explicitly restated its commitment that the remaining land would "be forever set apart as a home for said Creek Nation," which it now referred to as "the reduced Creek reservation." Arts. III, IX, id. , at 786, 788.1 Throughout the late 19th century, many other federal laws also expressly referred to the Creek Reservation. See, e.g., Treaty Between United States and Cherokee Nation of Indians, Art. IV, July 19, 1866, 14 Stat. 800 ("Creek reservation"); Act of Mar. 3, 1873, ch. 322, 17 Stat. 626; ...

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