Before the U.S. Supreme Court changed the nature of criminal prosecutions on tribal land last year, the Cherokee Nation was filing on average six cases per month in its tribal court system, the tribe said.
Now, on the first anniversary of the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, the tribe has reported filing more than 1,200 cases so far this year.
That influx of cases in tribal court is in addition to the uptick in major crimes prosecutions in federal courts as a result of the McGirt ruling.
Most recently, federal prosecutors had to pick up a murder and arson case against Kevin Tyler Foster, a Cherokee Nation citizen who had challenged his state conviction on jurisdictional grounds. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the life sentence handed down after jurors in Rogers County convicted him of killing his estranged stepfather, Rick Swan.
A federal grand jury returned indictments against Foster in March on charges of first-degree murder in Indian Country and setting Swan’s body on fire “with the intent to make it unavailable as evidence.”
“Despite attempts at fearmongering, the past year has proven wrong those who unfortunately continue to spout anti-Indian rhetoric and who mislead the public on McGirt to undermine our rights,” Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said Friday in a statement. “Criminals did not suddenly all run free, local police officers still have the resources they need, and our justice system did not descend into chaos.”
The McGirt ruling and subsequent state appeals court decisions established that Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes involving American Indians that occurred within the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee or Seminole nations, leaving those prosecutions instead to the tribes and federal government.
Hoskins’ statement, following questions about the political nature of a McGirt-focused panel that is scheduled for next week, came with an announcement that the tribe has hired six new prosecutors, two new district court judges and 13 more marshals.
In addition, the Cherokee Nation plans to open a new court in Jay and a juvenile court in Muskogee.
Following the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court set in the case of Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole Nation citizen accused of sex crimes within the Muscogee Nation’s historic boundaries, will cost the Cherokee Nation at least $35 million per year, according to a news release.
Tribal leaders urge support for a proposed Cherokee Nation and Chickasaw Nation Criminal Jurisdiction Compacting Act. The Cherokee Nation has described the bill as “narrow federal legislation that would protect 100% of the Nation’s sovereignty in the wake of the historic McGirt decision and authorize tribal-state compacting on criminal subject matter jurisdiction.”
The tribe’s announcement additionally indicates that the Cherokee Nation will sign agreements with municipalities, Vian and West Siloam Springs among them, to donate fees from traffic and other citations to their jurisdictions. The measure, according to the update, “will ensure local agencies do not lose funding as a result of McGirt.”
“The tribe will also continue to file new cases in tribal court at an unprecedented pace in order to ensure victims can see justice and cases do not fall through the cracks,” the announcement states.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office is among several northeastern Oklahoma agencies participating in the McGirt-focused forum on Tuesday to discuss what they say are continued challenges for victims and survivors of crimes.
Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard, one of the panelists, has expressed similar frustration at appellate courts ordering the release of incarcerated people and dismissal of charges after McGirt claims. He has argued that current statute of limitations laws could mean those who should be imprisoned are freed with no recourse to hold them accountable for past criminal activity.
Ballard and Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler have cited delays in transferring cases between state and federal jurisdictions, which could mean defendants are freed from custody prematurely. They also have pointed to confusion they’ve said citizens experience as they wait to learn which agency can pursue charges and, if applicable, why those charges could differ from ones previously filed in state courts.
But tribal government leaders have said the list of panelists, primarily district attorneys, gave them reason to be wary of victims being used “for political reasons” to diminish tribal authority amid legitimate questions about jurisdictional issues.
Gov. Kevin Stitt is also expected to attend, as are advocates with Marsy’s Law and the nonprofit group Native Alliance Against Violence.
Attorney and Indigenous rights activist Brenda Golden announced plans for a protest on Tuesday in response to what she said was a “one sided” forum about the McGirt ruling. The event, billed as being “in strength and solidarity for tribal sovereignty and treaty rights,” will begin east of the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Tulsa at 5 p.m. and will include a walk to the Cox Business Convention Center, the site of the forum, at 5:30 p.m.
“The fact that we have what appears to be an anti-McGirt rally for political reasons … is the opposite of the direction the state needs to go,” Hoskin said Thursday of the “McGirt v. Oklahoma Community Impact Forum.”
Kunzweiler and Stitt’s offices have said they hope tribes will opt to participate in their conversation.
Related video: Cherokee tribal courts seeing a surge of cases due to the McGirt ruling