WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) — In a pair of sharply divided decisions, the Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Oklahoma officials in a case involving state lawsuits on Indian reservations and ruled for a reservist of the army who said he was mistreated by his public employer after his return. From Iraq.
The rulings come as the High Court prepares to end a consecutive term on Thursday with two opinions remaining on the president’s powers over immigration policy and tackling climate change. After the court announces its final rulings, Justice Stephen Breyer will officially retire at noon. Her departure will pave the way for the swearing in of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first black woman to sit on the High Court.
Oklahoma’s decision announced Wednesday limits the scope of a 2020 ruling that reclassified much of the state, including the city of Tulsa, as Indian land and halted criminal prosecutions. The 5-to-4 ruling, criticized by tribal leaders, said state officials have the power to prosecute non-Indians for crimes against Native Americans on a tribal reservation.
“The Court’s precedents establish that Indian Country is part of the territory of a state and that, unless preempted, the states have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian Country,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court after the 2020 ruling and provided the key vote on Wednesday.
Two years ago, the court said about 43% of Oklahoma remained a Native American reservation. The ruling, written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, who disagreed with Wednesday’s decision, prevented state law enforcement from prosecuting Native Americans who commit crimes on Indian lands.
In his dissent, Gorsuch said the majority misinterpreted history and that the tribes retain their authority unless Congress intervenes.
“Really, a more ahistorical and misguided statement of Indian law would be hard to fathom,” wrote Gorsuch, who was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
“Tribes are not private organizations within state boundaries. Their reservations are not glorified private campgrounds…Tribal sovereignty means that state criminal laws” can have no force “on Tribal Members within Tribal Boundaries unless and until Congress decides otherwise,” he wrote.
The case involved the prosecution of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, a non-Native American, who was convicted of grossly neglecting his 5-year-old disabled stepdaughter, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Castro-Huerta appealed his 35-year sentence, saying in part that the state lacked the power to prosecute him because the victim was Native American and the alleged crime took place in Indian Territory.
While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued two related opinions that significantly expanded the scope of Indian Country in Oklahoma and ruled that the state had no power to prosecute a Native American who had committed a crime in an Indian country against another Native American.
Oklahoma told the court that the shift to tribal and federal courts after the 2020 ruling forced the state to drop some lawsuits and some victims to have a second trial. Castro-Huerta later pleaded guilty in federal court and accepted a seven-year sentence.
Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday called the decision a “pivotal moment” that would allow the state to prosecute non-Native Americans and “protect Native victims.”
“Justice has been delayed and denied to thousands of Indigenous victims in our state for no reason other than their race. Now Oklahoma law enforcement can help uphold and enforce the law the same way , as we have for over a century,” Stitt said in a statement.
In a statement, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said Wednesday’s ruling is “an alarming setback for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Indigenous criminals commit crimes against Indigenous people.”
“This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States,” the tribe said, adding that “public safety would be best served by expanding tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by an offender in the boundaries of our reserves rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.”
Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement that the court “failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises” to Native Americans. Even so, he said, tribal and federal jurisdiction remains unchanged and tribes “will continue to seek partnership and collaboration with state authorities while expanding our own justice systems.”
In another 5-4 decision, the judges sided with an Army reservist who wants to sue the state of Texas, saying he was treated badly after returning from the war in Iraq.
At issue was a federal law passed after the Persian Gulf War that prohibited employers from discriminating when rehiring veterans after their service. The intent of Congress was to encourage Americans to enlist in the military by protecting them when they returned to civilian life.
But Texas argued that the Constitution does not allow Texas State Trooper Le Roy Torres to sue him in state court because states have sovereign immunity from such claims.
Judge Breyer wrote for the majority that this was untrue.
“Text, history and precedent show that the States, in uniting to form a Union, agreed to sacrifice their sovereign immunity for the sake of common defense,” Breyer wrote.
Courts in Texas and other states have said Congress cannot authorize such lawsuits against states in their own courts.
Breyer said that would actually give individual states too much authority to opt out of national decisions about war.
“If any state – or even 25 states – were to decide to protest a war by refusing to employ returned servicemen, Congress, on the word of Texas, would be powerless to authorize private reinstatement suits against those states,” said writes Breyer. “The potentially debilitating effect on national security would not matter.”
He was joined by Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh.
Thomas wrote a dissent nearly twice as long as Breyer’s opinion.
According to him, joined by Alito, Gorsuch and Barrett, the states deserved more autonomy.
“The constitutional text, history and precedent all show that when the states ratified the Constitution, they did not implicitly consent to private damages actions brought in their own courts – whether authorized by the Congressional war powers or any other Article I powers,” Thomas wrote. .
Torres was an Army reservist who was deployed in 2007 to Iraq, where he suffered lung damage from exposure to burn spots while on duty. Upon his return to Texas, he could no longer perform certain duties as a soldier and requested housing.
He and the Texas Department of Public Safety disagree on whether proper housing was offered, but Torres quit and later sued for $5 million under federal law. He and his wife went on to create an organization that defends service members injured by toxic exposure.
The Biden administration has defended the law as intended to provide job protection to reservists and National Guard members the military relies on as recruits.
The cases are Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta and Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety.