New Oklahoma AG asks SCOTUS to overturn major tribal ruling

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s new attorney general asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to overturn it’s own historic ruling on tribal sovereignty, saying the high court’s 5-4 decision last year was wrongly decided and has led to a “criminal-justice crisis.”

Attorney General John O’Connor filed the petition with the high court one day after an Oklahoma death row inmate whose challenge led to the ruling, later dubbed McGirt, was reconvicted in federal court for murder and kidnapping.

O’Connor argues the ruling has led to thousands of state prisoners challenging decades’ worth of convictions, many of which can’t be prosecuted again.

“The decision in McGirt now drives thousands of crime victims to seek justice from federal and tribal prosecutors whose offices are not equipped to handle those demands,” the petition states. “Numerous crimes are going uninvestigated and unprosecuted, endangering public safety.”

The petition also asks the Supreme Court to consider narrowing the application of its decision by allowing violent felons convicted before the ruling to remain in state prisons. It also asks the court to grant the state the authority to prosecute non-Native Americans who commit crimes against tribal citizens on reservation land.

Attorneys for the some of the tribes have argued the state’s dire warnings are overblown and that federal and tribal courts are working to handle the additional caseload.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. accused O’Connor and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee Nation citizen, of advancing an “anti-Indian political agenda.”

“The governor has never attempted to cooperate with the tribes to protect all Oklahomans,” Hoskin said in a statement. “It is perfectly clear that it has always been his intent to destroy Oklahoma’s reservations and the sovereignty of Oklahoma tribes, no matter what the cost might be.”

Stitt, who began clashing with the tribes over casino gambling shortly after taking office in 2019, appointed O’Connor to the attorney general post after former Attorney General Mike Hunter resigned suddenly in May. Hunter also was a fierce critic of the McGirt decision.

O’Connor’s petition was filed in the case of another death row inmate, Shaun Bosse, whose conviction in the killings of his girlfriend and her two children was tossed by a state appeals court. Bosse is not a tribal citizen, but his victims were, and the killings happened inside the Chickasaw Nation reservation. Bosse is awaiting a new trial in federal court, and in May the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to keep Bosse on death row while they considered reviewing the questions about criminal jurisdiction.

In a separate case on Thursday, a federal jury in Muskogee found another death row inmate, 52-year-old Patrick Murphy, guilty in the 1999 killing of George Jacobs in McIntosh County in eastern Oklahoma. Murphy faces up to life in federal prison when he is formally sentenced, but will avoid the death penalty.

A citizen of the Muscogee Nation, Murphy’s was the original case in which federal public defenders first argued the state didn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute him since he was a tribal citizen and the killing happened within the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation reservation.

A telephone message left Friday with Murphy’s attorneys wasn’t immediately returned.

Murphy’s case ended up being named for another criminal defendant, Jimcy McGirt, in a case involving similar jurisdictional issues. McGirt also was retried and convicted in federal court.

The Muscogee Nation’s reservation encompasses 3 million acres (12,100 square kilometers), including most of the city of Tulsa. Based on the high court’s ruling, the decision has since been expanded to include the reservations of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations, which cover essentially the entire eastern half of the state. It has led to hundreds of criminal convictions being thrown out, including several death penalty cases, and those cases being refiled in federal or tribal courts.