CNO Judicial Branch continues to strengthen two years after the landmark Supreme Court decision
By Kendra Germany-Wall
August 1, 2022
Over two years ago, on July 9, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that a large section of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation.
The decision meant that Oklahoma prosecutors lacked the authority to pursue criminal cases against American Indian defendants in parts of Oklahoma, where the Five Tribes are based.
What Started it All
The case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, revolved around an appeal by an Indigenous man, 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt. McGirt claimed state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reservation land that belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. After the announcement, Jimcy McGirt didn’t escape punishment.
On August 18, 2020, the federal grand jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma returned an indictment against the defendant based on the same facts that had resulted in his 1997 Oklahoma conviction. Less than three months later his federal jury trial began.
In November 2020, The United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma announced that Jimcy McGirt was found guilty by a federal jury of two counts of Aggravated Sexual Abuse in Indian Country and one count of Abusive Sexual Contact in Indian Country in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1151, 1153, 2241(c) and 2246(2). Each count is punishable by not less than 30 years and not more than life imprisonment, a fine up to $250,000.00, or both. The jury trial began with testimony on Wednesday, November 4, 2020, and concluded on Friday, November 6, 2020, with the guilty verdicts.
You can find more information on McGirt v. Oklahoma.
Fighting for Sovereignty
Throughout the past two years, the state of Oklahoma and its governor, Kevin Stitt-R, made numerous attempts to overturn the decision. In his 2022 State of the State speech, Stitt tried to paint a grim picture of lawlessness within the eastern part of the state.
“From the beginning, I’ve sounded the alarm on the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision. Because I knew then, and I know now, that even a narrow Supreme Court ruling can fundamentally change a state. Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes. Put simply, McGirt jeopardizes justice,” Stitt said in his speech.
“This isn’t about winning and losing. This isn’t personal. It’s not Kevin Stitt versus the tribes,” said Stitt.
Tribal leaders immediately refuted the governor’s claims.
“The Governor continues to throw himself down kicking and screaming in the path to implement McGirt. His fear-mongering and lies serve no one who lives in the State of Oklahoma,” Hill said in a statement.
Tribal leaders say they have invested billions of dollars and are committed to providing a safe environment for all Oklahomans.
“It’s time for the governor to move forward and work alongside our tribes,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. “Tribal nations have been crucial to the successes in Oklahoma, contributing to jobs, economic growth, public safety, COVID response, health care and supporting education, communities, roads, and law enforcement.”
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) Chief Gary Batton said he didn’t attend the State of the State address because he thinks the Governor “has no respect for tribal sovereignty.”
“As leader of the Choctaw Nation, I am committed to doing what’s best for my members, and for our fellow Oklahomans. That’s why we remain dedicated to cooperation with officials at all levels of government, especially the Senate and House of Representatives, even when we have disagreements,” Batton said.
Successfully Maintaining Law and Order
In a post-McGirt world, CNO has taken strides to protect not only the Choctaw people but everyone living within the boundaries of its reservation.
As reported in May 2022, CNO has spent more than $24.8 million on direct and indirect expenses responding to McGirt to meet new responsibilities and ensure public safety across the reservation for all Oklahomans post-McGirt.
In Chief Batton’s most recent Conversations with Chief series, he speaks with Judge Amy J. Pierce about the Choctaw Judicial Branch. Watch the videos here.
One of the biggest efforts has been strengthening the Choctaw Tribal Police force.
Since the last update, CNO has sworn in many new members of the Tribal Police force.
On May 25, one of the largest swearing-in ceremonies was held for 15 new Choctaw Tribal Police officers. Judge Amy J. Pierce conducted the ceremony.
For those currently on the force, this is an opportunity to serve and protect the Choctaw people and local communities.
As of July 19, 2022, there were 91 sworn-in officers.
Choctaw Tribal Police currently have 75 cross-deputization agreements with local, state and federal agencies.
For those who join the force, it can be quite the transition.
“Working for the Tribe, it was hard to get used to, at first, having things you need and things that work and being able to work with other officers,” said Patrolman Shannon Kirk, who’s been with Choctaw Tribal Police since 2021.
Though there is an adjustment period for officers, CNO strives to train its officers to the best of their ability.
“There hasn’t been one week that has passed that I haven’t seen availability for multiple training opportunities that are being offered for very—either close surrounding areas or the immediate area of Durant,” said Patrolman Kirk. Choctaw Tribal Police and CNO’s Emergency Management are called upon to assist with cases such as missing persons, manhunts, traffic stops and many other situations.
Recently, Choctaw Tribal Police were involved in “newsworthy” cases such as assisting the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in investigating a fatal stabbing involving a marijuana grow facility outside of Wilburton and locating and arresting a robbery suspect wanted out of Sherman, Texas.
According to an Iti Fabvssa article released in 2017, The Choctaw Lighthorse was established shortly after the Treaty of Doak’s Stand to keep the peace and uphold laws within the CNO.
There were approximately 18 Lighthorsemen who served CNO; six for each of the three districts, Apukshunnubbee, Moshulatubbee and Pushmataha.
The Choctaw Lighthorse were legends of their time and worked hard to keep their nation safe.
The modern Tribal Police recently showed respect for the original Lighthorsemen by revealing new patrol cars that combine enhanced safety elements and Choctaw culture throughout the design.
The creative design includes using the Choctaw language, Apohkochi micha Intoksvali (Protect and Serve) and Chihowa II Anukcheto (In God We Trust). It also incorporates a historic photo of original Choctaw Lighthorsemen taken in 1893 in Antlers, Oklahoma.
The decision to make a design change came after the CNTP began having difficulties purchasing police vehicles due to the struggling car market and needed decal wraps that would be transferable to other vehicle models and colors.
“The new design is important as it pays tribute to both culture and history,” said CNO Chief of Police Jesse Petty. “The Choctaw Lighthorse of yesteryear paved the way for our current day police officers. Their commitment and experienced hardships to enforce law and protect tribal citizens was nothing short of incredible.”
According to Petty, there are currently 17 new patrol units across the Choctaw Territory, and they plan to release 24 more as they become available.
Unexpected Turn of Events
On Wednesday, June 29, in a decision that stunned legal experts and tribal leaders, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments have the authority to prosecute certain cases on tribal lands, effectively undermining centuries of legal precedent by expanding the power of states.
The court’s ruling in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta is a massive blow to the sovereignty of tribes over their land and governance, federal Indian law experts and tribal leaders said.
Concerns were raised that states would upend the autonomy of tribes to prosecute crimes on their land.
After the decision was released, Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said they celebrated the ruling. O’Connor said he was pleased that the nation’s highest court “declined to treat Indian victims as second class citizens.”
The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes released a statement, calling the decision shocking and disconcerting, adding that it goes against the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law.
The statement reads as follows:
“The June 29 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta ruling against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority, as well as Indian law, is disconcerting and shocking. This decision will greatly impact tribal nations not just in Oklahoma, but throughout Indian Country. We agree with the dissent in this decision, which noted that the Supreme Court failed in its duty to honor the United States’ legal promises and instead intruded on a matter of tribal sovereignty that has been recognized since the Nation’s founding. Justice Gorsuch said it best in his dissenting opinion, ‘[w]here this Court once stood firm, today it wilts.’
Chief Batton also responded to the Supreme Court’s most recent decision.
“We are extremely disappointed in this ruling, in part because it appears to rely on faulty information provided by the opposition,” he said. “Of course, we respect the authority of the Supreme Court, and we will integrate this into our continued efforts to provide effective criminal justice in our reservation as we work with law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, local and tribal level.”
The Native American Rights Fund and The National Congress of American Indians also responded to the ruling stating, “The Supreme Court’s decision today is an attack on tribal sovereignty and the hard-fought progress of our ancestors to exercise our inherent sovereignty over our own territories,” said National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Fawn Sharp. “It was only a few months ago that Congress loudly supported tribal sovereignty and tribal criminal jurisdiction with the passage of the Violence Against Women’s Act, reaffirming the right of Tribal Nations to protect their own people and communities, but make no mistake, today, the Supreme Court has dealt a massive blow to tribal sovereignty and Congress must, again, respond.”
What Lies Ahead
Though there is currently uncertainty about what the Supreme Court will do next, CNO promises to keep the safety of its tribal members and all Oklahomans as a top priority.
“To be clear, this ruling does not affect the main holding of the McGirt decision, which affirmed tribal sovereignty and requires the United States to uphold its treaty obligations,” said Chief Batton. “Our focus remains on protecting our members, as well as all four million Oklahoma residents.”
As stated in previous reports, this situation is ever-evolving.
To stay up-to-date on tribal issues, follow CNO on all social media platforms and check out choctawnation.com.