Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, whose crime induced jurisdictional uncertainty, was charged by the State of Oklahoma for child neglect and was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment. Castro-Huerta appealed his state-court sentence, and as this appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided McGirt v. Oklahoma. In this case, the Court held that the Creek Nation’s reservation in eastern Oklahoma, including Tulsa, had never been properly disestablished and, therefore, remained Indian country. Additionally, Castro-Huerta (a non-Indian) committed a crime against his stepdaughter (a Cherokee Indian) in Tulsa, Oklahoma (an Indian country). In response to the development of Indian country matters in McGirt, the respondent argued that the State lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him for the crime he committed against his Indian stepdaughter in Indian country. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with his argument and vacated his conviction.
However, the McGirt opinion referenced the federal Major Crimes Act, which provides that within “the Indian country…[a]ny Indian who commits” certain enumerated offenses “against the person or property of another Indian or any other person” “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of the above offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.” Though this statute warrants a federal trial as states generally lack jurisdiction to try Indian crimes committed in Indian country, as corroborated by Negonsott v. Samuels, it does not apply to Castro-Huerto as he is a non-Indian. Consequently, Victor Manuel Castro-Huera’s prosecution is not barred by the State due to his non-Indian status.
Moreover, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to further determine the extent of a State’s jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. The Supreme Court notes that in the early Republic, the Federal Government occasionally treated Indian country as separate from state territory. This view, however, has since been abandoned as Indian country is a part of the State, and a State is “entitled to the sovereignty and jurisdiction over all the territory within her limits,” as asserted in Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan. The Court, moreover, has specifically held that States have jurisdictional authority to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against non-Indians in Indian country, as outlined in United States v. McBratney and Draper v. United States.
Under the Court’s precedents, a State’s jurisdiction in Indian country may be preempted by (i) federal law under ordinary principles of federal preemption, or (ii) when the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe on tribal self-government.
In examining the possibility of the State’s jurisdiction in Indian country being preempted by (i) federal law under ordinary principles of federal preemption, Castro-Huerta directs the Court to two federal laws that, he asserts, preempt Oklaohoma’s prosecutorial authority. First, the respondent refers to the General Crimes Act, which grants the Federal Government jurisdiction to prosecute crimes in Indian Country. This Act provides: “Except as otherwise expressly provided by the law, the general laws of the United States as to punishment of offenses committed in any places within the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, except the District of Columbia, shall extend to the Indian Country.” The text of this Act does not preempt state authority as it merely “extend[s]” federal law to Indian country without mentioning the principle of state jurisdiction over crimes committed within the state, including in Indian country. The General Crimes Act additionally specifies the federal criminal law that extends to Indian country by referring to the “general laws,” which are the federal laws that apply in federal enclaves such as military bases and national parks. Most noteworthy, however, the General Crimes Act does not purport that Indian country is equivalent to a federal enclave for jurisdictional purposes, that federal jurisdiction is exclusive in Indian country, or that state jurisdiction is preempted in Indian country. Therefore, under this Act, both the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed in Indian Country. This Act, moreover, does not preempt state authority to prosecute Castro-Huerta’s crime.
The respondent then guides the Court to the second federal law, Public Law 280, that he contends preempts Oklaohoma’s prosecutorial authority. This affirmatively grants certain States – and other States who opt in with tribal consent – broad jurisdiction to prosecute state-law offenses committed by or against Indians in Indian country. As the Supreme Court concluded in Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, Public Law 280 does not preempt any preexisting or otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction that States possess to prosecute both civil and criminal crimes in Indian country. This law does not only grant States jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian on Indian crimes, but also crimes that Indians commit. Contrary to focusing on the explicit language of the law, the respondent presented an argument predicated on assumptions. Castro-Huerta notes that the enactment of Public Law 280 in 1953 would have been futile if States already had concurrent jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. By virtue of this, he asserts that Congress must have assumed that States did not already have concurrent jurisdiction over those crimes. Nonetheless, Public Law 280 does not preempt state authority to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.
In assessing whether a State’s jurisdiction in Indian country can be preempted (ii) if the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe on tribal self-government, the Court scrutinizes the White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker balancing test. The Bracker balancing test, however, does not bar the State from prosecuting crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. First, the exercise of state jurisdiction, in this case, would not infringe on tribal self-government because Indian tribes generally lack criminal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes when committed by non-Indians, such as Castro-Huerta, against Indians. Additionally, a state prosecution of a non-Indian involves solely the State and the non-Indian defendant without exercising state power over any Indian or over any tribe. Second, a state prosecution of a non-Indian would not harm the federal interest in protecting Indian victims as the state would supplement federal authority rather than supersede it. Third, the State has a strong vested interest in ensuring public safety and criminal justice within its territory for Indians and non-Indians alike.
This Court ultimately found that the State had the authority to prosecute Castro-Huerta, as state jurisdiction, in this case, is not preempted in Indian country and does not infringe on tribal self-government.
This majority decision preserved the integrity and consistency of the Supreme Court as the statutes were interpreted according to the original intent and purpose of the legislature. The respondent’s argument was substantially predicated on assumptions, speculations, and contradictions of Court precedent. For example, the respondent asserted that the General Crimes Act does indeed make Indian country equivalent to a federal enclave. In addition to being wrong as a matter of precedent, if this interpretation by Castro-Huerta were true, then the Act would preclude states from prosecuting any crimes in Indian country, even those that would involve non-Indian crimes against non-Indians.
If the majority of Justices in this case were to interpret the laws according to the respondent’s argument, democracy would be attacked and precedent would be futile. Regrettably, this decision only required one more vote for the unconstitutional decision of the lower court to stand. This suggests that Justices on the Court are willing to interpret the Constitution and laws at their whim – with no objective foundation – at the expense of equal protection under the law.
Supreme Court Justices who don’t apply and adhere to the original history and meaning of the Constitution pose a threat to our democracy by acting as if they are above the rule of law and precedent, which erodes the purpose of checks and balances.
Zander Pitrus is from San Diego, CA, studying Political Science.