WASHINGTON — A congressional subcommittee investigating the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned decades of precedent in Native American law heard testimony today that the court ignored tribal sovereignty to reach its decision.
The June ruling in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta saw the court assert that both federal and state agencies hold concurrent jurisdiction when it comes to prosecuting non-natives for crimes on native land. In Oklahoma, the 5-4 ruling modified the impact of the court’s landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision from just two years prior, which functionally affirmed the existence of Indian Country reservations covering much of the eastern part of the state. But the Castro-Huerta ruling set new precedent in terms of criminal jurisdiction.
Five tribal leaders from across the country testifying before the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. on Tuesday uniformly denounced the court’s June decision, which impacts more than 500 tribes across the country. (Video of the hearing is embedded above.)
“Castro-Huerta undermines tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty by creating a false narrative that native victims are best protected by the state, (and) they are not,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador for the Muscogee Nation in eastern Oklahoma.
Chaudhuri denied arguments from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration that the Castro-Huerta decision was needed to address a public safety crisis created by the McGirt decision.
“Any actual crisis was entirely manufactured by the individual county sheriffs, prosecutors, and others, who have not only refused to collaborate (with tribes), but actively used criminal cases, and most disgustingly, victims, as political proxies to create the illusion of a crisis,” he said.
But Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard, who also serves Craig and Mayes counties, celebrated the Castro-Huerta ruling, comparing it to a “beacon of hope” for the Native American victims that he represents.
He insisted the McGirt decision created chaos in Oklahoma with hundreds of criminal cases in his three-county northeast Oklahoma district being dismissed or thrown out.
”Native American victims were bearing the brunt of the McGirt decision,” he said.
Whitney Gravelle, president of Bay Mills Indian Community located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, said that while the Castro-Huerta ruling involved criminal jurisdiction, it could bleed over into civil jurisdiction and have unforeseen consequences on standing federal laws.
“(The decision) casts doubt on any federal law that exists including its application in Indian Country,” Gravelle said. “This may include permitting requirements and regulations, control of land and natural resources.”
Sara Hill, the Cherokee Nation attorney general, warned of the dangers that rulings affecting tribal sovereignty can create.
Hill specifically called on Stitt to “come back to the table,” and “end his anti-tribal agenda.” Stitt has long been a strong opponent of the McGirt decision and celebrated the Castro-Huerta ruling, calling it a “clear victory” for the “rule of law.”
“It is my belief, founded as it must be in faith in our democracy and our justice system, that McGirt will not be the highwater mark, but the Castro-Huerta (ruling) is certainly a retreat from the principle decision in McGirt,” Hill said. “That should give people who believe in tribal sovereignty and the rule of law some pause.”
Carole Goldberg, a University of California School of Law professor, was blunt in her testimony.
“I can say with emphasis that Castro-Huerta got the relevant law entirely wrong,” Goldberg said, citing how the ruling was in direct conflict of Public Law 280, which can give states jurisdiction in tribal territory only with the consent of a tribe.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of the Interior told the committee that they are still reviewing the effects of the Castro-Huerta ruling and plan to work with both tribal leaders and the U.S. Department of Justice to outline guidance for tribes affected by the ruling.