State, Cherokee Nation authorities working to ensure community justice

·3 min read

May 20—State prosecutors and authorities with Cherokee Nation have the same goal in mind when it comes to the McGirt ruling: keeping communities safe.

It's been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction over crimes on tribal reservations. If both the defendant and the victim are Native, federal authorities would have jurisdiction over felony cases, and tribes over misdemeanors.

The state has jurisdiction over cases wherein both the defendant and victim are non-Native, even if they take place on the "reservation." State prosecutors do not have criminal jurisdiction over crimes involving Natives.

In August, Oklahoma's Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that state-court convictions can't be overturned, even if the defendant or victim is Native American, or if the crime occurred on tribal land.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said CN had been working to prepare their criminal justice system on increased responsibility even before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. She said those efforts have been incredibly successful.

"We are grateful for the collaboration between our state agency and federal partners. A critical part of this effort is ensuring we can work closely together to do all we can to enhance public safety and keep victims and families safe," said Hill.

District 27 District Attorney Jack Thorp it is also the state's primary goal to do whatever it takes to ensure communities are safe.

"I believe we have an excellent relationship with our tribal prosecution partners," said Thorp. "At this time, the communication with both the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District and the Cherokee Nation Attorney General is relatively seamless and professional."

Hill's office has expanded from 19 employees to 52 as part of the expansion of criminal cases in wake of McGirt. CN has filed over 4,000 felony and misdemeanor cases whereas, they used to file about 75 cases per year.

CN District Court Judge Luke Barteaux said there are usually 30 cases set for pretrial dockets, and all but one or two of those cases will plead the day of trial.

"The AG's office has been successful in all cases tried before a jury in at least the past five years," said Barteaux.

During an April 28 CN Rules Committee meeting, Marshal Service Director Shannon Buhl advised they have 20 open positions for marshalls.

The state is currently waiting on an opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court for the Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta case.

"Our hope is that the opinion in that case can clarify whether the state would have jurisdiction over 'non-members of federally recognized tribes' that commit crimes against 'members of federally recognized tribes,'" said Thorp.

The Castro-Huerta case involves a man who was convicted in state court for child neglect. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had thrown out the conviction because of jurisdictional issues related to McGirt.

Thorp said if the Supreme Court rules for the state, it would go a long way toward helping victims of crimes in District 27.

"Right now, only the federal government has jurisdiction in the vast majority of those cases; felonies and misdemeanors, and the federal government is not filing very many of those cases. This has been a significant problem post-McGirt," said Thorp.

Thorp said they expect a decision in June.

The prosecutor said he's spent 23 years without considering whether or not a person is Native American as part of the charging decisions, and now that's a determination that must be made with each and every case. Those cases are either sent to CN or the U.S. Attorney.

"Now it controls in many cases and can be very tough on local law enforcement who have less influence over the process. However, we must all work together for the benefit of our citizens," said Thorp.