Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

Citation142 S.Ct. 2486,213 L.Ed.2d 847
Decision Date29 June 2022
Docket Number21-429
Parties OKLAHOMA, Petitioner v. Victor Manuel CASTRO-HUERTA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

John M. O'Connor, Attorney General, Mithun Mansinghani, Solicitor General, Caroline Hunt, Jennifer Crabb, Assistant Attorneys General, Bryan Cleveland, Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Oklahoma, Attorney General, Ryan Leonard, Edinger Leonard & Blakley, PLLC, Oklahoma City, OK, Kannon K. Shanmugam, Counsel of Record, William T. Marks, Yishai Schwartz, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Washington, DC, Jing Yan, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, New York, NY, for Petitioner.

Nicollette Brandt, Chad Johnson, Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, Norman, OK, David A. Strauss, Sarah M. Konsky Jenner & Block, Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, IL, Zachary C. Schauf, Counsel of Record, Matthew S. Hellman, Leonard R. Powell, Allison M. Tjemsland, Victoria Hall-Palerm, Kelsey L. Stimple, Kevin J. Kennedy, Jenner & Block LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Kannon Shanmugam, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Zachary C. Schauf, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, in support of the respondent.

Justice KAVANAUGH delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a jurisdictional question about the prosecution of crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country: Under current federal law, does the Federal Government have exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute those crimes? Or do the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute those crimes? We conclude that the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.


In 2015, Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife and their several children, including Castro-Huerta's then-5-year-old stepdaughter, who is a Cherokee Indian. The stepdaughter has cerebral palsy

and is legally blind. One day in 2015, Castro-Huerta's sister-in-law was in the house and noticed that the young girl was sick. After a 911 call, the girl was rushed to a Tulsa hospital in critical condition. Dehydrated, emaciated, and covered in lice and excrement, she weighed only 19 pounds. Investigators later found her bed filled with bedbugs and cockroaches.

When questioned, Castro-Huerta admitted that he had severely undernourished his stepdaughter during the preceding month. The State of Oklahoma criminally charged both Castro-Huerta and his wife for child neglect. Both were convicted. Castro-Huerta was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment, with the possibility of parole. This case concerns the State's prosecution of Castro-Huerta.

After Castro-Huerta was convicted and while his appeal was pending in state court, this Court decided McGirt v. Oklahoma , 591 U.S. ––––, 140 S.Ct. 2452, 207 L.Ed.2d 985 (2020). In McGirt , the Court held that Congress had never properly disestablished the Creek Nation's reservation in eastern Oklahoma. As a result, the Court concluded that the Creek Reservation remained "Indian country." Id., at –––– – ––––, ––––, ––––, 140 S.Ct., at 2459–2460, 2467–2468, 2474. The status of that part of Oklahoma as Indian country meant that different jurisdictional rules might apply for the prosecution of criminal offenses in that area. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1151 – 1153. Based on McGirt ’s reasoning, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later recognized that several other Indian reservations in Oklahoma had likewise never been properly disestablished. See, e.g. , State ex rel. Matloff v. Wallace , 2021 OKCR 21, ¶15, 497 P.3d 686, 689 (reaffirming recognition of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Reservations); Grayson v. State , 2021 OKCR 8, ¶10, 485 P.3d 250, 254 (Seminole Reservation).

In light of McGirt and the follow-on cases, the eastern part of Oklahoma, including Tulsa, is now recognized as Indian country. About two million people live there, and the vast majority are not Indians.

The classification of eastern Oklahoma as Indian country has raised urgent questions about which government or governments have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed there. This case is an example: a crime committed in what is now recognized as Indian country (Tulsa) by a non-Indian (Castro-Huerta) against an Indian (his stepdaughter). All agree that the Federal Government has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. The question is whether the Federal Government's jurisdiction is exclusive, or whether the State also has concurrent jurisdiction with the Federal Government.

In the wake of McGirt , Castro-Huerta argued that the Federal Government's jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by a non-Indian against an Indian in Indian country is exclusive and that the State therefore lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Castro-Huerta. Relying on an earlier Oklahoma decision holding that the federal General Crimes Act grants the Federal Government exclusive jurisdiction, the court ruled that the State did not have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. The court therefore vacated Castro-Huerta's conviction. No. F–2017–1203 (Apr. 29, 2021); see also Bosse v. State , 2021 OK CR 3, 484 P. 3d 286; Roth v. State , 2021 OKCR 27, 499 P.3d 23.

While Castro-Huerta's state appellate proceedings were ongoing, a federal grand jury in Oklahoma indicted Castro-Huerta for the same conduct. Castro-Huerta accepted a plea agreement for a 7-year sentence followed by removal from the United States. (Castro-Huerta is not a U.S. citizen and is unlawfully in the United States.) In other words, putting aside parole possibilities, Castro-Huerta in effect received a 28-year reduction of his sentence as a result of McGirt .

Castro-Huerta's case exemplifies a now-familiar pattern in Oklahoma in the wake of McGirt . The Oklahoma courts have reversed numerous state convictions on that same jurisdictional ground. After having their state convictions reversed, some non-Indian criminals have received lighter sentences in plea deals negotiated with the Federal Government. Others have simply gone free. Going forward, the State estimates that it will have to transfer prosecutorial responsibility for more than 18,000 cases per year to the Federal and Tribal Governments. All of this has created a significant challenge for the Federal Government and for the people of Oklahoma. At the end of fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice was opening only 22% and 31% of all felony referrals in the Eastern and Northern Districts of Oklahoma. Dept. of Justice, U.S. Attorneys, Fiscal Year 2023 Congressional Justification 46. And the Department recently acknowledged that "many people may not be held accountable for their criminal conduct due to resource constraints." Ibid.

In light of the sudden significance of this jurisdictional question for public safety and the criminal justice system in Oklahoma, this Court granted certiorari to decide whether a State has concurrent jurisdiction with the Federal Government to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. 595 U.S. ––––, 142 S.Ct. 877, 211 L.Ed.2d 585 (2022).1


The jurisdictional dispute in this case arises because Oklahoma's territory includes Indian country. Federal law defines "Indian country" to include, among other things, "all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government." 18 U.S.C. § 1151.

To begin with, the Constitution allows a State to exercise jurisdiction in Indian country. Indian country is part of the State, not separate from the State. To be sure, under this Court's precedents, federal law may preempt that state jurisdiction in certain circumstances. But otherwise, as a matter of state sovereignty, a State has jurisdiction over all of its territory, including Indian country. See U.S. Const., Amdt. 10. As this Court has phrased it, a State is generally "entitled to the sovereignty and jurisdiction over all the territory within her limits." Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan , 3 How. 212, 228, 11 L.Ed. 565 (1845).

In the early years of the Republic, the Federal Government sometimes treated Indian country as separate from state territory—in the same way that, for example, New Jersey is separate from New York. Most prominently, in the 1832 decision in Worcester v. Georgia , 6 Pet. 515, 561, 8 L.Ed. 483 this Court held that Georgia state law had no force in the Cherokee Nation because the Cherokee Nation "is a distinct community occupying its own territory."

But the "general notion drawn from Chief Justice Marshall's opinion in Worcester v. Georgia " "has yielded to closer analysis." Organized Village of Kake v. Egan , 369 U.S. 60, 72, 82 S.Ct. 562, 7 L.Ed.2d 573 (1962). "By 1880 the Court no longer viewed reservations as distinct nations." Ibid . Since the latter half of the 1800s, the Court has consistently and explicitly held that Indian reservations are "part of the surrounding State" and subject to the State's jurisdiction "except as forbidden by federal law." Ibid.

To take a few examples: In 1859, the Court stated: States retain "the power of a sovereign over their persons and property, so far as" "necessary to preserve the peace of the Commonwealth." New York ex rel. Cutler v. Dibble , 21 How. 366, 370, 16 L.Ed. 149 (1859).

In 1930: "[R]eservations are part of the State within which they lie and her laws, civil and criminal, have the same force therein as elsewhere within her limits, save that they can have only restricted application to the Indian wards." Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook , 281 U.S. 647, 651, 50 S.Ct. 455, 74 L.Ed. 1091 (1930).

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  • Milne v. Hudson
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    ...boundaries of a reservation, we must remember that Oklahoma's sovereignty does not stop at reservation borders. Castro-Huerta, 597 U.S. at ––––, 142 S. Ct. at 2488. The U.S. Constitution authorizes this State to exercise jurisdiction in Indian country. Oklahoma's territory includes "Indian ......
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    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 98 No. 3, March 2023
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