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New Oklahoma Indian Lands Case Could Affect Other States

The Supreme Court is weighing whether to revise its 2020 decision recognizing nearly half of Oklahoma as Indian country, a distinction that transferred many criminal cases from state to federal courts. The high court is considering the state’s argument that under federal law, where the U.S. Justice Department prosecutes crimes by or against Indians on reservations, state courts retain parallel authority to prosecute non-Indians even when the victim is an Indian. The state says it needs to recover that jurisdiction because the original ruling has caused a criminal-justice crisis. Federal and tribal jurisdictions lack capacity to handle a deluge of cases now under their responsibility. Dozens of violent crimes have gone unpunished because federal statutes of limitation expired, witnesses died or evidence vanished, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Should the court agree with Oklahoma, other states with Indian reservations could find themselves with authority for prosecuting crimes over territory that for generations have been the U.S. Justice Department’s sole responsibility. The 2020 case was decided by a 5-4 vote, with dissenters arguing that, in admitting Oklahoma to the Union in 1907, Congress dissolved the reservations it had granted the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the decision in 2020 recognizing nearly half of Oklahoma as Indian country. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined three other liberals behind Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion, has been succeeded by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Wednesday's arguments were the curtain call for Justice Stephen Breyer, who will retire after all of the term's decisions are delivered.

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