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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen behind barricades on June 26, 2022. The barricades were erected in response to protests over a controversial decision to limit the reproductive rights of women. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court finally released a long-awaited decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, the last of three Indian law cases heard during a highly controversial session.

By a vote of 5 to 4 on Wednesday, the court held that the state of Oklahoma can exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes in Indian Country. The decision is a setback for tribal interests who have been closely watching the contentious case.

“The classification of eastern Oklahoma as Indian Country has raised urgent questions about which government or governments have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes commit­ted there,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion that embraced the state’s relentless efforts to undermine tribal sovereignty following the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in the McGirt case exactly two years ago.

Indianz.Com Audio: U.S. Supreme Court – Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta – April 27, 2022

In the decision, Kavanaugh pointed out that the “vast majority” of residents in eastern Oklahoma are “not Indians.” He said the state can exercise concurrent jurisdiction over crimes they commit in Indian Country even though tribal governments with sovereignty over those lands never consented.

“In short, the court’s precedents establish that Indian Country is part of a state’s territory and that, unless preempted, states have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian Country,” Kavanaugh wrote, citing a string of decisions going as far back as 1845 in which he said tribal reservations have long been considered to be “part of the surrounding state.”

The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett. All were nominated to the bench by Republican presidents, with the latter two only arriving to the Supreme Court in the last four years.

Just last week, the same conservative bloc of justices embraced a different view of the “court’s precedents” as they joined together to deny women the constitutional right to an abortion.

Although Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the supermajority in overturning precedents affecting a woman’s right to choose, he was not in agreement with his colleagues when it comes to state sovereignty in Castro-Huerta. He authored a dissent that pointed back even further in the high court’s jurisprudence.

“The decision established a foundational rule that would persist for over 200 years: Native American tribes retain their sovereignty unless and until Congress ordains otherwise,” Gorsuch wrote, citing the historic ruling in Worcester v. Georgia back in 1823.

In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court barred the state of Georgia from exercising any sort of jurisdiction within the lands of the Cherokee Nation. But today, Gorsuch said his conservative colleagues have gone back on the promise that the U.S. government would respect, honor and uphold tribal sovereignty.

“Where this court once stood firm, today it wilts,” Gorsuch observed.

“Where our predecessors refused to participate in one state’s unlawful power grab at the expense of the Cherokee, today’s court accedes to another’s,” he added.

“Respectfully, I dissent,” Gorsuch wrote simply.

Gorsuch’s dissent was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. All were nominated to the Supreme Court by Democratic presidents.

Breyer, who is one of the few sitting justices to have visited Indian Country, is retiring from the court at the end of the current term. The final day for decisions is Thursday.

Though Gorsuch was picked by a Republican president, his experience in Indian law is unprecedented for any justice. Two years ago, he the author of the historic decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the one that recognized the continued existence of Indian Country in Oklahoma.

Since the decision, the Republican governor of Oklahoma has bombarded the Supreme Court with requests to overturn McGirt. Every single petition has been rejected — except for Castro-Huerta, which was limited to one question alone: whether the state can prosecute non-Indians in Indian Country.

Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta
Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta had been serving a 35-year prison sentence in the state of Oklahoma for child abuse, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He has since been transferred to federal custody, where he remains pending resolution of his case in the federal system. Screenshot from

The non-Indian in this case is Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who admitted in federal court to a charge of child neglect involving a young victim. The crime occurred on the reservation on the Cherokee Nation in the northeastern part of Oklahoma.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday does not immediately affect Castro-Huerta’s prosecution in the federal system, as the ruling affirmed the “concurrent jurisdiction” of the U.S. government in certain cases that arise in Indian Country. He is due to be sentenced in August under a plea agreement that envisions a seven-year sentence.

However, Castro-Huerta was previously prosecuted in county court in Oklahoma and has not yet completed his 35-year sentence for the crime. Under his federal plea, he is expected to be deported from the United States so the ruling creates a conflict that impacts his future detention status.

And while the state of Oklahoma told the Supreme Court that it was better equipped than the federal government to prosecute non-Indian criminals, Justice Gorsuch remains unconvinced. In his dissent, he cited a brief authored by former federal prosecutors who served in Democratic as well as Republican administrations that predicted “fewer police and more crime” under a system of concurrent state-federal jurisdiction.

Gorsuch also cited a brief submitted by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center that outlines how state jurisdiction in Indian Country has contributed to high rates of violence against women and children. And he pointed to the efforts of the bipartisan Indian Law and Order Commission and wrote that “more state criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country is often not a good policy choice.”

“Still, none of this finds its way into the court’s cost ­benefit analysis,” Gorsuch wrote, chastising his conservative colleagues for ignoring experts in Indian law and policy.

The decision in Castro-Huerta comes after favorable rulings in the two other Indian law cases argued during the Supreme Court’s session. On June 13, the justices held that Indian defendants can be prosecuted in tribal and federal court for the same crime due to inherent tribal sovereignty. The outcome in Denezpi v. United States was 6 to 3, with Justice Barrett authoring her first Indian law decision since joining the court less than two years ago.

Two days later on June 15, the high court rebuked the state of Texas in a long-running sovereignty dispute with the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, also known as the Tigua Tribe. By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices confirmed that the two tribes can offer Class II forms of gaming free of state interference. Justice Gorsuch authored the majority decision in Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas that recognized tribal sovereignty.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta
Syllabus | Opinion [Kavanaugh] | Dissent [Gorsuch] | Complete Document

U.S. Supreme Court Documents in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta
Questions Presented | Docket Sheet: No. 21-429 | Oral Argument Transcript | Day Call

Syllabus – Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

Opinion [Kavanaugh] – Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

Dissent [Gorsuch] – Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

Full Document – Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

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