Justice Neil Gorsuch fumes that the Supreme Court 'failed' to 'honor this Nation's promises' as it rolled back tribal authority in Oklahoma

·3 min read
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is seen in the House chamber during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on January 30, 2018.
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
  • The Supreme Court Wednesday authorized Oklahoma to handle certain crimes on Native American land.

  • Justice Neil Gorsuch blasted the ruling, saying it "failed" to "honor this Nation's promises."

  • A 2020 ruling said only tribal and federal authorities could prosecute crimes in the jurisdiction.

Justice Neil Gorsuch on Wednesday blasted the Supreme Court for handing states more power over Native American land, saying the ruling failed to "honor this Nation's promises."

The nation's highest court delivered a victory to state authorities, declaring that Oklahoma officials had jurisdiction over crimes involving non-Native Americans in Native American territory.

The 5-4 majority opinion, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, received the votes of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett. Gorsuch and the court's three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor — dissented.

"Truly, a more ahistorical and mistaken statement of Indian law would be hard to fathom," Gorsuch wrote in a fiery dissenting opinion.

Wednesday's ruling limits a Supreme Court decision handed down two years ago that said a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma was considered Native American reservations, meaning only tribal and federal authorities — not state officials — could handle criminal prosecutions on that land.

Gorsuch authored that 2020 ruling, and the court's liberal wing joined him then as well, forming the majority at the time. But now, the court has an expanded 6-3 conservative majority. Gorsuch, who's from Colorado, has had a track record of standing up for tribal rights in his opinions.

"One can only hope the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this Nation's promises even as we have failed today to do our own," Gorsuch wrote in his dissent.

The case, known as Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, concerned Victor Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American who was convicted by state authorities of neglecting his 5-year-old stepdaughter, a Native American, in Cherokee Nation territory. An Oklahoma appeals court tossed out his conviction after the 2020 Supreme Court ruling. Federal authorities then stepped in and charged Castro-Huerta, who pleaded guilty. He has not been sentenced.

The state's Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, celebrated Wednesday's ruling as a "clear victory for all four million Oklahomans, the state of Oklahoma, and the rule of law."

"Justice has been delayed and denied to thousands of Native victims in our state for no reason other than their race. Now Oklahoma law enforcement can help uphold and enforce the law equally, as we have done for over a century," he said in a statement.

The head of the Cherokee Nation on Wednesday said he was "disappointed" in the Supreme Court's decision.

"The dissent today did not mince words — the Court failed in its duty to honor this nation's promises, defied Congress's statutes, and accepted the 'lawless disregard of the Cherokee's sovereignty,'" Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement.

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