- By Darren Thompson
On Wednesday, April 13, a U.S. District Court ruled that the city of Tulsa has jurisdiction to enforce its ordinances to anyone, regardless of a person’s race, or tribal enrollment.
U.S. District Judge William P Johnson responded to an appeal filed by Justin Hooper, a Choctaw man who challenged the city of Tulsa’s jurisdiction to issue him a traffic ticket in 2018.
His appeal was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt decision, that determined that the Muskogee (Creek) reservation was never dissolved by Congress and therefore jurisdiction for criminal cases involving tribal citizens belongs to the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw), the Quapaw Nation, and the Federal government.
On December 17, 2020—five months after the McGirt decision—Hooper filed for postconviction relief in the Tulsa Municipal Criminal Court. After arguments, the court found that it had jurisdiction pursuant to the Curtis Act of 1898, and denied Hooper’s postconviction relief. The Curtis Act of 1898 granted the city of Tulsa the jurisdiction to enforce its city ordinances to anyone regardless of race, or Tribal citizenship. The act also aimed at weakening tribal sovereignty by abolishing tribal courts in all Five Tribes and Quapaw courts.
The Tulsa Municipal Criminal Court found that the appropriate court for Hooper to appeal his municipal conviction would be in the U.S. Federal District Court. Hooper filed a civil lawsuit on April 9, 2021, in Tulsa District Court appealing the Tulsa municipal court’s decision.
Hooper argued in his appeal that because he is classified as an “Indian,” the state of Oklahoma and the state municipal courts did not have jurisdiction.
The U.S. District Court disagreed with Hooper, however.
“This characterization of McGirt's holding is incorrect. McGirt makes no mention of municipal jurisdiction and only briefly mentions the Curtis Act in the dissent,” wrote US Johnson in his opinion. “McGirt says nothing about repealing or overriding the Curtis Act, and it does not deal with municipal law at all.”
Hooper’s attorney commented to Tulsa World that an appeal is planned and that the Curtis Law does not apply to his client’s case.
Others are challenging Tulsa’s jurisdiction to issue traffic citations to members of Tribes as well. Keith Stitt, brother of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, is challenging Tulsa’s jurisdiction to prosecute him for a speeding ticket issued in 2021. His appeal is based on the McGirt ruling. Both Stitts are members of the Cherokee Nation.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Oklahoma v. Castro-Heurta, the state of Oklahoma’s main challenges to modify or overthrow McGirt.
The Supreme Court will decide if a state has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian Country.
Previously, the Supreme Court said it will only review McGirt as it applies to non-Indian defendants charged with crimes against Tribal members in Indian Country.
The Castro-Huerta case deals with a man who was convicted of child neglect and sentenced for 35 years. He appealed the decision, claiming the state of Oklahoma doesn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute him because he’s non-Indian and his crime occurred in Indian Country. His victim is Native. He pled guilty in federal court, and is now waiting to be sentenced to federal prison.
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