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Gov. Stitt concerned about what McGirt ruling doesn't say, its far-reaching interpretations

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Stitt McGirt

Gov. Kevin Stitt says one “fix” for litigation in Oklahoma’s ongoing McGirt-related challenges would be the U.S. Supreme Court expressly limiting the ruling’s scope to major criminal cases.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expressly limits the scope of its 2020 McGirt decision to major criminal cases would be an acceptable if not optimal result of the state’s ongoing litigation in the matter, Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday.

“If it’s limited just to criminal (cases), we can absolutely fix this,” Stitt said during a visit to the Tulsa World. “We absolutely can sit down and fix this.”

To be clear, Stitt said his first choice is for jurisdictional matters to revert to pre-McGirt. In the state and through national news outlets, he’s portrayed the decision as disaster for the state — a view not universally shared.

An outright reversal, however, would be unusual.

On Wednesday, the high court will hear oral arguments in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, one of the state’s 30 challenges to McGirt. In a January order, the court said it will only review McGirt as it applies to non-Indian defendants charged with crimes against tribal members.

The state would like the court to go further. While most of the attention arising from the McGirt decision has been on criminal cases, Stitt said Friday his bigger concern is not what was in Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion.

It’s what isn’t.

“Some people say (the) reservations exist for all purposes,” Stitt said. “That’s the big question we want resolved. If it’s a reservation for all purposes, great. Let me know. That means I’m not the governor of eastern Oklahoma.”

The McGirt ruling found the Muscogee Nation reservation was never properly dissolved, and that the state has no jurisdiction over major criminal offenses committed by American Indians within the boundaries of that reservation.

Courts have since interpreted the decision to extend to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Quapaw reservations, and expanded it to include cases involving American Indian victims of major crimes committed by non-Indians.

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Some legal experts have argued that the ruling should also extend to civil law and other matters, including taxation. This month, an Oklahoma Tax Commission administrative judge concluded that a Muscogee citizen working for the tribe and living within the reservation borders should get a refund on state income tax.

“We are willing and able to sit down and talk, but I will not agree that (tribal members) do not have to pay taxes to the state of Oklahoma,” said Stitt. “That would be me giving up our sovereignty as the state of Oklahoma.”

During a 70-minute meeting, Stitt also spoke at length on the state’s efforts to recruit a large maker of electric vehicle batteries to northeastern Oklahoma, and on criminal justice reform.

Stitt said he expects to meet with the chief executive officer of the unnamed company — widely speculated to be Panasonic — early next week. Last week, the Legislature passed a new incentive program that could rebate more than $600 million to the facility, and as much as $85 million to a second unnamed manufacturer.

Both companies would build at Pryor’s MidAmerica Industrial Park.

Acknowledging opposition from some lawmakers, area residents and MAIP tenants, Stitt said he is determined to push for what he called a “generational impact project,” which — according to news reports and this week’s legislation — would involve as much as $5 billion in capital investment and employ 4,000.

“What excites me is that we’ve been trying to diversify away from oil and gas, so I’m excited to plant the flag,” Stitt said. “There’s a lot of (industry) disruption right now. A lot of money is flowing into electric vehicles, into manufacturing, a lot of research and development dollars are flowing into electric vehicles. ... There’s not these opportunities that come along all the time.”

Stitt touted the reduction in the number of Oklahomans incarcerated during his term and said anonymous television ads attacking his mass commutations of a few years ago endanger future progress on that front.

“I believe I’m going to win (reelection),” he said, “but the Legislature will never pass another meaningful criminal justice bill if a Republican gets taken out” over the issue.

Stitt appeared taken aback by the suggestion that the state has not lived up to the provisions of State Question 781, which specifies that money saved by lower incarceration rates is to be plowed back into community treatment and assistance.

“Public safety is No. 1,” Stitt said. “At the same time, we have to look at rehabilitation. Ninety-nine percent of the people in prison are going to eventually get out. So how do we bring some of those services behind the prison wall to get them back into the workforce?”

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