OKLAHOMA CITY — The state is paying an outside law firm up to $700,000 in its efforts to get a landmark court ruling on tribal sovereignty overturned.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor earlier this month announced that the state would appeal the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, which found that Congress never disestablished the Muscogee Nation reservation.
The 2020 ruling found that under the Major Crimes Act the state lacked criminal jurisdiction over crimes involving Native Americans on the reservation. The ruling’s reach has since been extended to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations, and affected cases have been transferred to federal court or tribal courts.
O’Connor’s office hired the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to limit or overturn McGirt, which was a 5-4 decision.
The firm has offices around the world, including in New York and Washington, D.C.
According to the contract provided by O’Connor’s office at the request of the Tulsa World, the firm’s Kannon Shanmugam will be paid $912 an hour, while William Marks will be paid $580 an hour. Meanwhile, a paralegal will be paid $175 an hour.
The contract was not required to be competitively bid.
The rates are a 50% discount of the lowest hourly rates charged by the firm for the services of the lawyers performing the duties, according to the contract.
“Kannon Shanmugam has a sterling record of success in front of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for O’Connor. “Combine the unmatched experience with the firm’s discounted rate to the state, the decision to retain him was not a difficult one.
“It is also not uncommon for the state or other agencies to retain outside counsel, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in the McGirt decision. We are working closely together to ensure the state’s interests are aggressively defended, which includes seeking to overturn the decision.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt, who appointed O’Connor, has strongly criticized the historic decision.
Stitt had previously hired Ryan Leonard as his special counsel on Native American affairs. Leonard has been paid $250 an hour, capped at 40 hours a month. He so far has been paid $80,000.
Lawmakers have increased the budget of the Attorney General’s Office by 136%, some of which was intended to fight “federal overreach.”
The Tulsa World in December reported that legal and other fees associated with Stitt’s disagreement with tribes over gaming compacts had topped $2 million.
That dollar amount includes fees from a federal lawsuit brought against Stitt that successfully sought a declaration that the gaming compacts had automatically renewed. Stitt chose not to appeal that ruling.
Correction: This story originally misstated the hourly billing cap for the governor's special counsel on Native American affairs. The story has been corrected.