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Mayor still mum on Indian Affairs Commission's request to pull city's brief supporting McGirt challenge
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Mayor still mum on Indian Affairs Commission's request to pull city's brief supporting McGirt challenge

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It’s early, but a tribal affairs commission’s request that the city of Tulsa withdraw its amicus brief in support of the state’s challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling has so far failed to gain any real traction.

After saying on Friday that he had not read the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission’s letter seeking the withdrawal, Mayor G.T Bynum was out of the office Monday and unavailable for comment.

City spokeswoman Michelle Brooks said that when the mayor does respond to the letter, he will do so directly to the Indian Affairs Commission, not to the media.

Cheryl Cohenour, chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Commission, said late Monday that she had not received a response from the mayor.

Bynum is the person who approved the filing and the person with the ultimate authority to withdraw it.

The nine-member City Council, meanwhile, has no legal say in the matter. But a majority of councilors on Monday expressed concern about the mayor’s decision and said they were troubled by the fact that it was made without their knowledge or input.

“I think it was just an unfortunate way to present things. I think it could have been handled better,” said Councilor Crista Patrick.

“If the Police Department is having a problem and they are having concerns, by all means they need to be addressed. We need to fix the problems, but those are things that we have to work together to fix.

“And presenting it in an accusatory way like this is not our best work.”

Patrick is one of four councilors who said they would support pulling the amicus brief. The others are Councilors Vanessa Hall-Harper, Kara Joy McKee and Lori Decter Wright.

“I think it has done nothing to improve the situation, and if the problem is a public safety issue and the proposed solution is to overturn McGirt, we are going to be waiting quite a long time,” Wright said.

“So in the meanwhile, we need to follow what McGirt says, which is that local governments — state governments that are affected by this — need to work together to work through these challenges.”

At issue in the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma was a criminal case involving Jimcy McGirt, who had been convicted in an Oklahoma court of child molestation. McGirt claimed that the state didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute him because he was an American Indian and the crime occurred within the Muscogee Nation reservation.

The court ruled for McGirt, finding that Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee Nation reservation, leaving the state of Oklahoma with no jurisdiction to try criminal cases committed by or against American Indians within the tribe’s reservation boundaries.

The ruling has subsequently been applied to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Quapaw reservations.

Bynum said last week that the amicus brief was requested by the state Attorney General’s Office and that he agreed to file it after hearing concerns from Tulsa police that cases were not being prosecuted.

“That was a real concern for our department, and we thought that was relevant information that needed to be shared with the court as they evaluate whether or not they are going to hear this case,” Bynum said.

The city’s amicus brief, filed jointly with the city of Owasso, seeks to have McGirt overturned.

“But if the Court is unwilling to do so, it should at least alleviate some of the harm by holding that States may prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country,” the brief states.

The city’s decision to file the amicus brief — and the mayor’s decision not to share that information with the City Council — has created an awkward situation for several councilors working to improve relations with the tribes.

The councilors, led by McKee, have been working for months to create a committee focused specifically on tribal relations. The Tulsa City Council Tribal Relations Committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting Nov. 9.

“It is not going to replace the Indian Affairs Commission,” McKee said. “We are hoping that we will be able to learn from the work of the Indian Affairs Commission what we as councilors can do to better those relationships” with the tribes.

McKee said honoring the McGirt ruling is the right thing for the state to do after spending more than 100 years acting like the Indian reservations were gone.

“Of course, living up to our promises after so much time ignoring them brings challenges, but I believe Tulsa and the tribal nations are up to the challenge,” McKee said. “I am disappointed that the city joined Gov. Stitt’s frivolous lawsuit, because it only delays us figuring out how to work together better with the tribal governments that share this land.”

Councilors Jeannie Cue, Jayme Fowler and Phil Lakin said they did not know enough about the city’s decision to file the amicus brief to comment on it. Councilor Connie Dodson also declined to comment, noting that councilors are typically advised by the City Attorney’s Office not to comment on ongoing litigation involving the city.

Councilor MyKey Arthrell said he wants to discuss the matter with Bynum before offering his thoughts on withdrawing the amicus brief. But he did not hold back from expressing his dismay and confusion over the action.

“It logically makes no sense to get behind that,” Arthrell said. “I know the police force has had struggles early on with how to do things, but I thought for the most part those got ironed out. … Obviously, no one wants to see people go unpunished for crimes and people being let out, (but) what is really to be gained by doing this, because what it is costing is our relationship with the tribes, and that is a huge cost.”

Bynum said last week that he had apologized to one city councilor who was upset that he did not notify the council of his decision to file the brief.

“It wasn’t intentional,” Bynum said.

“I have to deal, as the mayor, with legal questions pretty much every single day, and as those come up, that is my responsibility to make those calls in this job.”

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin Jr. talks about the city of Tulsa's reaction to the McGirt decision. Ian Maule/Tulsa World

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