Does Oklahoma have Jurisdiction over Native Americans – What does Murphy v. Royal Mean?

By Matt Dunn

In a recent groundbreaking case, Murphy v. Royal, 866 F.3d 1164 (10th Cir. 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the State of Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction over Native Americans who commit crimes in “Indian country.” How did the Court come to this conclusion and what exactly does it mean? The question of whether the state court had jurisdiction is straightforward, but reaching an answer is not.

The defendant in the case, Patrick Murphy, who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was charged by the State of Oklahoma with murder in the first degree, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. After numerous appeals, Mr. Murphy sought a habeas corpus application with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. A habeas corpus application is brought by a defendant seeking post-relief to show that he/she has been unlawfully detained.

At the heart of this appeal was the question of whether the State of Oklahoma had jurisdiction to try Mr. Murphy as he is Native American and the crime occurred in “Indian country”.

The Major Crimes Act is the jurisdictional statute at the center of the arguments. That Act applies to enumerated crimes committed by Native Americans in “Indian country.” The Court stated that the term “Indian reservation” has come to describe federally-protected tribal lands, which are those lands that Congress has set apart for tribal and federal jurisdiction. The term “Indian country” includes not only reservations but other lands as well. The Major Crimes Act states:

“Any Indian who commits against the person or property of another Indian or other person any of the following offenses, namely, murder ... within the Indian country, shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of the above offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.”

Under federal law, “Indian country” is defined as:

(a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation,

(b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and

(c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

If an area qualifies under any of these definitions, then it is considered “Indian country”. Congress has stated that “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation.”

When the Major Crimes Act applies, jurisdiction is exclusively federal; therefore, the State of Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction over a criminal offense committed by a Native American against another Native American or other person, within “Indian country”.

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that only Congress has the exclusive power to unilaterally repeal treaties that were made with the Indian tribes. Therefore, because only Congress can alter the terms of an Indian treaty by diminishing the size of a reservation, the Supreme Court has said the standard of whether a reservation's boundaries have been altered is purely that of congressional purpose, and courts cannot not lightly infer that Congress has exercised its power to disestablish or diminish a reservation without express intent. Further, the Supreme Court has held that courts must approach these issues with a “presumption” that Congress did not intend to disestablish or diminish a reservation. Congress clearly has the right to abolish or diminish an Indian reservation, but its intent to do so must be clear and plain.

To determine whether there is Congressional intent to abolish or diminish an Indian reservation, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals looks at factors known as the “Solem Factors” previously set forth by the Supreme Court. The Solem Factors first look at the text of the statute which purportedly disestablishes or diminishes the reservation. Next, the events surrounding the passage of the statute must be considered. Finally, but to a lesser extent, the events which occurred after the passage of the relevant statute must be considered. The Supreme Court placed some limits on the Solem Factors by stating that throughout the inquiry, courts must resolve any ambiguities in favor of the Native Americans and remember that disestablishment and diminishment are not to be lightly found. The law which provides that legal ambiguities be resolved to the benefit of the Native Americans is applied to its broadest possible scope in disestablishment and diminishment cases. Absent substantial and compelling evidence, courts are bound by traditional solicitude for the Native American tribes to conclude “that the old reservation boundaries survived”.

In Murphy v. Royal, the Court found that in the first step of analyzing the Solem Factors, there were no statutes which clearly disestablished the Creek Reservation. The Court stated that the statutes lacked any textual “hallmarks” that demonstrated a clear congressional intent to disestablish the reservation or other language which showed that the boundaries were altered. In the second step, the Court found that there was no historical evidence that revealed an unequivocal understanding that the affected reservation would shrink as a result of the proposed legislation. In the third step, the Court considered approaches of the authorities to the lands in question and also the subsequent demographic history. The Court did not find this any more persuasive that the first two steps, and concluded that Congress did not disestablish the Creek Reservation. Therefore, applying the Solem factors, the Court found that Congress did not disestablished the Creek Reservation. As the crime occurred within the Creek Reservation's boundaries, the State of Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Mr. Murphy.

So what does this mean going forward? It appears that any crime committed in “Indian country” by a Native American cannot be prosecuted by the State of Oklahoma but rather must be tried in federal court. The Murphy v. Royal opinion seems to only extend this holding to the crimes enumerated in the Major Crimes Act, but could arguably include any offense committed in “Indian country” by a Native American. The Murphy v. Royal opinion has the potential to open the flood gates for numerous appeals of other similarly-situated defendants which may be taken to the Supreme Court for further adjudication.


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