Oklahoma Congressman Introduces Bill On Tribal Jurisdiction Compacts

Tuesday, May 11th 2021, 4:42 pm


Federal legislation to allow the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations to compact with the state of Oklahoma on criminal justice was formally introduced today for Rep. Tom Cole, a Chickasaw and one of just a handful of Native Americans in Congress. The introduction comes one day after leaders of the two tribes signaled their support for the bill.

Given the respect that Republicans, and many Democrats, have for Rep. Cole, and with his tribal affiliation, it's no surprise that he has taken the lead role on Capitol Hill in trying to solve the problems caused by the Supreme Court's decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma last summer.

The 5-4 ruling stipulated that Congress never actually disestablished the Muscogee Nation and thus the federal government, not the state, had jurisdiction in any major crimes occurring within the tribe's former reservation boundaries. Rulings by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals expanded the ruling to apply to major crimes committed on Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, and Seminole Nation land, as well.

In the aftermath, hundreds of state convictions have been vacated and federal authorities have had to try to step in and refile charges, as well as, take on new cases.

Within months of the decision, some leaders including Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter began advocating for Congress to allow the tribes, if they wanted, to give that jurisdiction back to the state through compacting. Leaders in the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations expressed support for such a solution, while the other three tribes suggested going down that path could put their newfound sovereignty at risk.

Congressman Cole, in a statement today, said the legislation he's introduced would preserve each tribe's independence, "rightly ensuring that any decision directly affecting Oklahoma or these tribes is made at the state and local level."

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton called the bill unnecessary and said if Congress wants to assist Oklahoma tribes on criminal jurisdiction, then those efforts should be aimed at strengthening tribal sovereignty.

In a Zoom call with the media on Monday Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill, who helped craft the bill, said, "This proposal doesn't give up any of the historic gains the tribes have worked so hard for in the McGirt case. And since that monumental decision, it gives more tools to the tribe while keeping the tribe in control of its own future."

The other partner in any potential compact negotiation, the state of Oklahoma, has made no comment yet on the introduction of compacting legislation. Governor Kevin Stitt has expressed, at best, uneven support for a compacting solution, and a spokesman for the Governor says they were not consulted on either the language in the bill or the timing of its introduction.

No other members of the state's House delegation have thus far commented on the bill, despite a general acknowledgment by all in recent months that they will need to present a united front in order to maximize the chances of getting legislation through the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Over on the Senate side, it's not clear who will carry the bill. Both Senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford are still reviewing the bill.