U.S. Supreme Court, State Court of Criminal Appeals find historic reservation presence

Two recently decided court cases have affirmed Tribal treaties and rights here in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decided the most recent case – Bosse v. Oklahoma – on March 11. Federal law deprives States of jurisdiction over crimes committed on a reservation by or against Indians. The defendant in Bosse invoked this rule to argue Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction over him for crimes he committed within the Chickasaw Nation against Chickasaw citizens. Citing the United States Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, the appeals court agreed with the defendant and reversed his conviction for lack of State jurisdiction.

While the defendant succeeded in having his Oklahoma conviction vacated, he has not escaped justice. The United States Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma immediately brought Federal charges against him for the same criminal acts, which charges will now proceed in Federal court. By resolution approved February 21, 2021, the Chickasaw Tribal Legislature called for the defendant’s being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for his crimes.

“Our hearts remain steadfast with the victims’ family,” said Governor Bill Anoatubby. “We appreciate the United States Attorney’s timely and appropriate action and will continue our efforts to support the family of the victims and to see justice done.”

The McGirt decision last summer set the stage for the Bosse ruling. In McGirt, the United States Supreme Court ruled the Muscogee Creek Nation reservation had never been disestablished and, thus, remained Indian country for purposes of criminal jurisdiction. Because of the Five Civilized Tribes – Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole – share closely parallel legal histories, observers expected McGirt to come to apply to each of them, and with Bosse, McGirt now applies to the Chickasaw Nation.

Prior to these rulings, many assumed the Indian country of the Chickasaw was limited to trust and restricted lands, but these rulings reestablish that Chickasaw Indian country extends throughout our treaty territory. And within Indian country, the Federal government has jurisdiction over all crimes committed by or against Indians, the Tribe has jurisdiction over Indians who violate Tribal laws, and the State has jurisdiction over non-Indians who victimize non-Indians or commit so-called “victimless” crimes.

Accordingly, affirmation of the Chickasaw Nation’s reservation status will affect law enforcement throughout our treaty territory. Tribal, State, and Federal police and prosecutors are working to ensure smooth transition as the Bosse case is implemented.