June 29, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta

On June 29, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, No. 21-429, holding that the State of Oklahoma has concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.

In 2015, Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta’s 5-year-old stepdaughter, who is a Cherokee Indian, was rushed to a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hospital in critical condition. Castro-Huerta admitted that he had severely undernourished his stepdaughter. The State of Oklahoma criminally charged Castro-Huerta with child neglect, and he was convicted. While his appeal was pending, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was first recognized as Indian country based on the application of McGirt v. Oklahoma, 591 U.S. __ (2020). “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.” 18 U.S.C. § 1151. The state appellate court vacated Castro-Huerta’s conviction based on its determination that the Federal Government had exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.

In reversing and remanding, the Supreme Court first observed that the Constitution provides that a State has jurisdiction over all of its territory, even Indian country. Since the late 1800s, the Court had recognized that States have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed in Indian country unless preempted. The Court rejected the argument that the State’s jurisdiction to prosecute such crimes had been preempted by the General Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1152, which extends federal law to Indian country. The plain text did not state that Indian country was equivalent to a federal enclave, that federal jurisdiction is exclusive in Indian country, or that state jurisdiction is preempted in Indian country. The Court similarly rejected the argument that Public Law 280, which grants certain States broad jurisdiction to prosecute state-law offenses committed by or against Indians in Indian country, preempted the State’s exercise of jurisdiction. Prior precedent held Public Law 280 was never meant to divest States of pre-existing and otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction.

The Court then turned to whether the State’s exercise of jurisdiction was preempted under the Bracker balancing test. The test considers tribal interests, federal interests, and state interests. All weighed in favor of concurrent State jurisdiction. First, there was no infringement on tribal self-government because Indian tribes lack criminal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians, and a state prosecution of a non-Indian does not involve the exercise of state power over any Indian or any tribe. Second, a state prosecution would supplement, not preclude, any federal prosecution. Finally, the State has a strong sovereign interest in ensuring public safety and criminal justice within its territory, in protecting all crime victims, and in ensuring that criminal offenders are appropriately punished.

The Court next rejected that treaties from the 1800s, particularly the Treaty of New Echota, or the Oklahoma Enabling Act preempted the State’s exercise of jurisdiction. The treaties did not preempt the State’s exercise of jurisdiction because they were supplanted by the Oklahoma Enabling Act, which enabled Oklahoma’s statehood. The Oklahoma Enabling Act likewise did not contain any express words to limit the State’s exercise of criminal jurisdiction throughout its territory. Therefore, without any basis for preemption, the default rule that States may exercise criminal jurisdiction within their territory applied.

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Barrett joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

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