Radical changes could find their way to Oklahoma as legal experts’ state a federal appeals court ruling that overturned a Native American man’s murder conviction in Oklahoma on jurisdictional grounds could usurp how tribal members are prosecuted in a massive land area that was assigned to tribes before Oklahoma became a state in 1906.
Last August, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Patrick Murphy's murder conviction and death sentence in state court, after determining the Creek reservation was never formally disbanded by Congress.
Murphy was found guilty of mutilating and murdering George Jacobs, his longtime girlfriend's former partner, near Henryetta in 1999. Both men were tribal citizens and the crime occurred on what had once been Creek land before Congress seemingly ended the Creek reservation to make way for Oklahoma statehood.
Homicides on tribal land must be tried in federal court and Murphy was convicted in state court, the 10th Circuit ruled.
On Wednesday, a brief in support was filed by a litany of groups with interest in the Murphy vs. Royal Supreme Court case, namely the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association and the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association.
Ten judges representing 24 counties in Oklahoma and all 77 Oklahoma Sherriff’s cited deep concerns about the ramifications of the Tenth Circuit’s decision for law enforcement in the State of Oklahoma.
“Nothing raised by these groups is grounds for changing the Supreme Court’s well-established test for diminishment or overriding the historical record that shows Congress took no clear action to do away with the 1866 reservation. Most of the issues raised in the briefs filed today are already clearly addressed by existing federal law and Supreme Court precedent, and those that aren’t be addressed by intergovernmental collaboration,” said Kevin Dellinger, Attorney General for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
State and federal officials warn, if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds last year’s ruling overturning Murphy’s first-degree murder conviction for the 1999 killing of George Jacobs, it will lead to a flood of appeals from other Native American inmates in Oklahoma and could affect other things such as tax collection and property rights.
The 10th Circuit court of appeals court concluded the state’s argument failed to “expressly” de-establish or diminish the boundaries. Because the crime occurred on land assigned to Murphy’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribe, his case should have gone through federal court instead of state court. The 10th Circuit court also declined a rehearing on November 9, 2017, after which it was recommended to the Supreme Court.
Moreover, the United States Senate faces a momentous decision in the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, urges the Senate consider Judge Kavanaugh’s views on the law as it pertains to tribal nations; “Unfortunately, many law schools leave tribal nation and federal Indian law out of the curriculum. Too many judges encounter Indian law questions for the first time on the bench. Most have never visited an Indian reservation. Tribes strongly encourage the Senate to consider the nominee’s understanding of and experience with federal Indian law, specifically his commitment to uphold the unique political status of tribal governments under the U.S. Constitution and treaties with the United States during the confirmation process.” NCAI and its partner the Native American Rights Fund will analyze Judge Kavanaugh’s.
If Murphy’s 10th Circuit court ruling is upheld in the Supreme Court, huge impacts on how the state and federal prosecutors operate within the five tribes’ districts, which constitutes most of eastern Oklahoma, including the state’s second largest metropolis, Tulsa.
Should the Supreme upend the 10th Circuit court’s ruling, tribes fear another blow to tribal sovereignty already being tested.
Also discouraging for tribes; Neil Gorsuch, the only sitting Supreme Court justice well-versed in Indian law, has recused himself from the case because he worked on it as a judge in the 10th Circuit Court.