The amount of land the federal government officially recognized as Native American land under tribal jurisdiction changed in the blink of an eye from 55 million acres (just 2% of all land in the United States) to 75 million acres. On July 9, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an incredible win in McGirt v. Oklahoma to Native Americans whose land has been continuously diminished over the last two hundred years.
As Justice Gorsuch recognized, this case quickly became two-fold. The issue of the case centered around a man named Jimcy McGirt; the case appeared before the Court as Mr. McGirt appealed a criminal conviction from the Oklahoma state courts. The case quickly transformed into something much greater: Who owns the large portion of land in northeastern Oklahoma? The United States or the Creek Nation? As the Court decided, the land belongs (and has belonged) to the Creek Nation since 1832.
This issue first appeared in Murphy v. Royal in 2017. 876 F.3d 896 (10th Cir. 2017). There, a man named Murphy was accused of killing another man in Oklahoma. He was tried and convicted in the Oklahoma state courts and was sentenced to death. Id. at 904-05. Though it proceeded through a complicated appeal, it ended up in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals discussing one issue: did the Oklahoma state courts have jurisdiction over the case? Id. at 911. Mr. Murphy’s argument was, essentially, that because the crime occurred on land that belonged to Creek Nation (as a part of the Creek Reservation), only federal courts maintained jurisdiction over the case; the state courts never had jurisdiction over his case at all. Though the Tenth Circuit agreed with Mr. Murphy, the case was then appealed up to the Supreme Court of the United States where it remained without an opinion for two years.