Oklahoma tribes on Wednesday applauded the ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that reversed a district court’s ruling on the Hooper v. The City of Tulsa case.

The case involved Justin Hooper, a tribal citizen of the Choctaw Nation, who resides in the city of Tulsa, Okla. In 2018, Hooper was issued a speeding ticket by Tulsa police which resulted in a $150 fine imposed by Tulsa Municipal Criminal Court. 

In 2020, though, the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision ruled that a large swath of northeastern Oklahoma was still an Indian reservation, putting some court rulings into question. 

About five months after the McGirt ruling, Hooper challenged the speeding ticket based on his status as a tribal citizen. Hooper claimed the McGirt decision ruled that the Muscogee Reservation was never disestablished, therefore he was given protection from prosecution due to his tribal status. He argued the city did not have authority to give him a ticket.

Hooper’s request was denied by the Tulsa Municipal Court, citing the 1898 Curtis Act that allows the city of Tulsa to have jurisdiction over tribal land. 

Hooper then took his appeal in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Oklahoma, which dismissed the case. In response, Hooper took the case to the Tenth Circuit Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision on Wednesday.

“Mr. Hooper does not dispute that Section 14 provided Tulsa with jurisdiction over municipal violations committed by all its inhabitants, including Indians, at the time it was enacted, as Tulsa was a municipality in the Indian Territory, authorized and organized according to chapter twenty-nine of Mansfield’s Digest. Rather, Mr. Hooper argues that once Tulsa reorganized under Oklahoma law, Section 14 no longer applied to the city. We agree,” the Circuit Court’s ruling reads.

Tribes in Oklahoma were pleased with yesterday’s ruling in the case, which they saw as a threat to their sovereignty. 

“We’re pleased to see that the 10th Circuit has applied the correct rule of law concerning the questions before it regarding the Curtis Act. We can now move forward, expand resources and continue to flourish together with our partners rather than wasting anymore time challenging the sovereign rights of tribes,” Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a statement.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. issued the following statement on the ruling: “We are pleased with today’s decision in Hooper v. Tulsa, the 10th Circuit upheld tribal sovereignty and settled federal law – reaffirming that states and municipalities do not have criminal jurisdiction over Indians in Indian country. The court successfully denied attempts to circumvent these principles by turning to defunct, territorial provisions of the Curtis Act. 

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the existence of our reservations. As tribes continue to prioritize tangible solutions to protect public safety on our reservations, we hope we can now move forward. We again encourage all state officials to join the cooperative efforts to promote public safety on behalf of all Oklahomans.” 

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who is a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation, had a different reaction to the ruling.

“I am extremely disappointed and disheartened by the decision made by the Tenth Circuit to undermine the City of Tulsa and the impact it would have on their ability to enforce laws within their municipality. However, I am not surprised as this is exactly what I have been warning Oklahomans about for the past three years. Citizens of Tulsa, if your city government cannot enforce something as simple as a traffic violation, there will be no rule of law in eastern Oklahoma. This is just the beginning. It is plain and simple, there cannot be a different set of rules for people solely based on race. I am hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will rectify this injustice, and the City of Tulsa can rest assured my office will continue to support them as we fight for equality for all Oklahomans, regardless of race or heritage,” Stitt said.

Chief Hill of Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) offered a strong response to Stitt’s remarks. In a statement on Twitter, Hill said: “It’s unclear to me whether the Governor’s remarks are born of intentional dishonesty or an inexcusable ignorance of the laws. But either way, he should be ashamed. The people of Oklahoma deserve better.

“Race has nothing to do with this. There is no law that Tusla PD can’t enforce. That’s the part Stitt keeps ignoring as he perpetuates needless attacks on tribes—more is more. The city of Tulsa and the MCN have been working together under a cross deputization agreement since 2006. The sky is not falling. We know what to do, the Tenth Circuit opinion helps solidify that. When tribes are empowered and municipal partners work with us, communities are safer,” Hill said.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].