Today, I want to dive into our last 2022 Supreme Court decision that we will be talking about on the blog, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. This case focused on determining if the State of Oklahoma had the authority to enforce state laws within native land, and the Supreme Court decision led to state jurisdiction being extended to reservations and other tribal land in all fifty states. But in order to understand the context of this case, it makes sense to start with a focus on the history of policing, jurisdiction, and tribal land.
To explain what changed with this case, I want to first go all the way back to the 1830s, when tribal sovereignty was first established by the Supreme Court. At that time, the United States was rapidly expanding, and looking to push out the tribal nations that had land designated for them by past treaties with the federal government. In order to annex these reserved lands for settler use, the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which worked to establish new removal treaties with tribes, giving tribes a meager amount of money and land further west in exchange for removing them from current designated reservations (check out this article for more information about the Indian Removal Act). The Cherokee Nation, whose reservation was largely within the borders of the state of Georgia, refused. As part of an effort to force removal, Georgia passed multiple state laws restricting the activities and even individuals allowed on tribal lands. As a response, the Cherokee Nation brought an 1832 case called Worcester v. Georgia to the Supreme Court, arguing that since federal treaties recognized the Cherokee Nation as an independent, sovereign nation, states could not impose and enforce legislation within the borders of Cherokee land. The Supreme Court agreed, and ruled that states did not have jurisdiction over crimes on tribal land. For the next 120 years, courts would rule time and time again that jurisdiction over crimes on reservations was the responsibility of the tribal justice system, the federal government, or both, but never the state.
Fast forward to the 1950s, during the height of the Indian termination era. Congress began passing multiple laws with the goal of assimilating tribal communities into white cultural and societal norms, which included removing tribes from their land, dissolving federal recognition of many tribes, and passing laws like Public Law 280, which gave six states new jurisdiction over tribal lands without the consent of impacted tribes, including in Oregon ([for more information about termination in Oregon, check out this article). Public Law 280 not only gave state justice departments jurisdiction on both criminal and civil matters, but also revoked tribal communities’ abilities to create their own justice departments, unless they were given permission from surrounding counties. Denied requests mixed with disputes over reservation boundaries, confusion about which police department responds to which calls, and a lack of funding for the additional area under now under the jurisdiction of state police led to negative consequences like worse relationships between tribal communities and state and federal governments and significantly slower response times from police, in some cases leading to negligence and death of crime and overdose victims (you can read a more in depth breakdown of Public Law 280 consequences here). Public Law 280 received criticism from an overwhelming number of affected tribes as well as state police, and many have pushed for it to be repealed in recent years.
Which brings us to present day, and the Supreme Court case Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. This case is built on a 2015 criminal case, where Victor Manual Castro-Huerta, a non-native man, was charged by the state of Oklahoma with child neglect against his step-daughter, a girl of Cherokee descent. While this case was pending trial, a 2020 Supreme Court Case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, determined that almost half of Oklahoma was legally still native land, and since Oklahoma was not a Public Law 280 state, all crimes committed against or by a tribal member were outside state jurisdiction. Castro-Huerta used this new ruling to argue that he could not be charged by the state of Oklahoma for his crime, and his case was dropped. But as a response to the McGirt ruling, Oklahoma attempted to weaken tribal power in their state by appealing dozens of cases to the Supreme Court, including Castro-Huerta’s (for more information about Oklahoma’s response to McGirt, check out this article). When the Supreme Court reviewed Castro-Huerta’s case, they went against the previous 200 years of precedent and voted 5-4 that non-Public Law 280 states still had the right to claim jurisdiction over cases on tribal lands, even without explicit permission from tribes or the federal government. This means that going forward, all states will have the authority to respond to and prosecute criminal cases on reservations and other tribal lands, whether the victim or perpetrator are native or not.
In the wake of the Castro-Huerta case, tribal and state justice departments all over the country are reevaluating their relationships, patrol borders, funding needs, and more. Similar to Public Law 280, this Supreme Court decision expanded the rights of states over tribal lands without the consent of the impacted tribal governments, and many scholars and tribal leaders are predicting similar negative outcomes that Public Law 280 states experienced, including less responsive and unclear policing, degrading relationships, underfunding, and the potential for states to continue expanding their reach into tribal lands and affairs (read more about the specific outcomes of the Castro-Huerta case from NBC here. Furthermore, those living on reservations are now looking for clarity on which police departments will handle their police reports, from simple civil disputes to missing persons, rape reports, and other more serious cases. For more information about potential future impacts of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, check out this article that uses Public Law 280 impacts to predict the future of Indian law across the country. And if you’d like to learn more about the politics, history, and future of Indigenous land and rights, check out this book list.