U.S. Rep. Tom Cole announced his introduction of legislation Tuesday that, if approved, would grant two Native American tribes the option of compacting with the state of Oklahoma over criminal jurisdiction without the need for involvement from federal officials.
Cole issued a statement Tuesday saying the proposal for the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations is the product of “several months” of “serious and productive conversations with law enforcement officers across the Fourth District of Oklahoma,” which includes part of the Chickasaw Nation.
He said the legislation would provide “an immediate solution to the urgent issues facing law enforcement, giving them clarity to enforce the law, keep dangerous criminals behind bars and ensure justice is served.”
The U.S. Supreme Court determined in McGirt v. Oklahoma that the Muscogee Nation’s reservation remained legally intact and that as a result the state did not have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes involving either a defendant or victim who is a tribal citizen within the tribe’s boundaries.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has since applied the precedent in the McGirt case to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations. Their collective jurisdiction spans much of eastern Oklahoma.
Prosecutors, including Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, have expressed frustration over the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision runs counter to the practices of district attorneys’ offices for decades.
Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard has said he believes the ruling in the case of Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole Nation citizen accused of sex crimes within Muscogee Nation boundaries, could result in people being freed from prison because of federal statutes of limitations.
Cole did not reference specific cases in his statement but said he believes “immediate issues” are facing law enforcement because of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Based on the McGirt ruling, the state appellate court has reversed numerous convictions, including those in death-penalty cases, where it has determined they must be pursued in federal or tribal courts.
First-degree murder does not have a federal statute of limitations, but only one tribe — the Sac and Fox Nation — permits the use of capital punishment against its citizens. Most other crimes have a three-year statute of limitations in the federal court system.
Cole, who himself is a Chickasaw Nation citizen, said his bill does not mandate how the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations should form their compact agreements with the state. The Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations are not a part of the bill but could be incorporated in the future if they express interest.
“The legislation would give them an avenue to decide independently, rightly ensuring that any decision directly affecting Oklahoma or these tribes is made at the state and local level,” Cole said in his statement. “Indeed, Oklahomans are the best suited for making decisions that affect their own unique communities.”
Cole’s bill states that it would not have any impact on a tribe’s sovereign immunity or invalidate any other agreement it had with the state.
Any prospective compact about criminal jurisdiction is required to state the geographic boundaries of the tribe involved, clearly define which types of crimes district attorneys may prosecute and provide a mechanism for the agreement to be either amended or revoked.
Additionally, it includes a provision stating that anyone sentenced by a tribe to more than six months in prison could mandate that the term be served at “the nearest appropriate federal facility.”