The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found Wednesday that local ordinances, such as traffic laws, do not apply to Native Americans in large portions of the state of Oklahoma as a result of a 2020 Supreme Court decision.
The 10th Circuit’s ruling reversed a $150 speeding ticket that the City of Tulsa had issued in 2018 to Choctaw Nation member Justin Hooper, with the court noting that Tulsa lies within the historic boundaries of the Muscogee Nation and thus lacked jurisdiction to issue such a ticket as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. In McGirt, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the historical Muscogee reservation was never formally disestablished, and thus roughly half of Oklahoma ought to be recognized as “Indian country” for the purposes of determining criminal jurisdiction.
“Both Tulsa and Mr. Hooper speculate about possible unintended consequences of either affirming or reversing the district court, but ultimately, we are limited to interpreting the law Congress enacted and not the parties’ ‘dire warnings,’” the court wrote. “Accordingly, even if Tulsa proves correct that reversing the district court’s decision will lead to disruption, we must base our decision on the plain text of Section 14 [of the Curtis Act].”
The Curtis Act establishes the authority of towns that were created in Indian territory to enforce their laws, but the 10th Circuit found that this jurisdiction no longer applies because Tulsa reincorporated when Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1908, according to the ruling. If this results in a system in Oklahoma that is “untenable,” Congress could “at any time” act to resolve the situation, the Court reasoned.
“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,” the Muscogee Nation wrote in a Wednesday statement. “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.”
Republican Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said the city would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court in a June 30 Facebook post.
“Today I have authorized our attorneys to request that the United States Supreme Court hear this case and give all parties clarity so we can move forward,” said Bynum. “As we have with their other rulings, we will honor whatever the courts decide. But we need to know what federal law allows.”
Bynum additionally called for an end to the “legal back and forth” between tribal governments, the state of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa, which he said resulted in litigation that was harmful to all parties. He criticized Congress for failing to clarify the legal issues surrounding the state and stressed his respect for the sovereignty of tribal nations, saying that his office was already working with the governments of various tribal nations to establish “operating practices” involving intergovernmental relations.
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