[9/29/20] – July Supreme Court Ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma Impacts Tribal and Federal Court System

In a 5-4 landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that half of the land in the eastern part of the state of Oklahoma is Native American land. The July 9th ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case is being recognized as a “long-awaited triumph” for the Five Tribes in Oklahoma who have “struggled to strengthen their tribal sovereignty” within the state. However, the Supreme Court’s decision, which focused on the question whether the Muscogee (Creek) reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state, will have significant implications for the legal system within the state.

The case itself concerned Jimcy McGirt, now 71 years old, an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who was convicted of three serious sexual offenses against a child. According to the facts of the case on Oyez.org, McGirt argued that the state of Oklahoma lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute him because his crimes took place on the Muscogee (Creek) reservation and that the Major Crimes Act (MCA) provides that any crime that involves a Native American victim or perpetrator, or occurs within the recognized reservation boundaries, is subject to federal jurisdiction, not state jurisdiction. He further contended that he must be retried in a federal court; the higher court agreed. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the majority opinion, which held that the state of Oklahoma lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt for the crimes that he committed in 1997. The ruling overturned McGirt’s sentence, however, BBC reported that he could still be tried in federal court.

How will the ruling impact the legal system in Oklahoma?

The ruling will have a number of significant consequences for the legal system in the part of the state that was ruled as Native American land. First, certain major crimes that are committed within the boundaries of the reservations must now be prosecuted in a federal court, rather than a state court if a Native American is involved. Crimes that involve Native Americans, take place on reservations, and are less serious will be prosecuted by tribal courts. Second, due to the ruling some past decisions are now considered wrongful convictions because they were prosecuted in a state court. Criminal defendants in these situations will now be able to challenge their convictions, citing the lack of state jurisdiction. Third, the changes in jurisdiction will overwhelm the smaller federal and tribal courts, as local prosecutors will no longer be able to handle those cases. Fourth, it is not clear how prosecutions will work due to tensions between the state and the tribes over public safety and tribal sovereignty. Overall, there is concern over the sweeping changes to the legal system and other areas (like taxation, environmental law, zoning, etc.) due to the Supreme Court’s ruling. In a statement, the Five Tribes of Oklahoma pledged to work with authorities, both federal and state, to agree to shared jurisdiction over the land.

Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.



  • Writing: Explain how the Supreme Court’s ruling will impact the legal system in the state of Oklahoma.
  • Debate: Although the Supreme Court ruling overturned McGirt’s prison sentence, he should be retried in a federal court and sentenced for the crimes he committed. (Agree or Disagree).
  • Poll: After learning about the facts of this case, do you agree with Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion or the dissenting opinion? (Categories: Majority Opinion or Dissenting Opinion)
  • Short Answer: What question did the Supreme Court’s decision focus on in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case?

Cover Image: The Choctaw Nation Tribal Complex (the former Oklahoma Presbyterian College) in Durant, Oklahoma ; Created by Michael Barera and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

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