This July will mark one year since the historic Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma that upended the criminal justice system in Oklahoma's Indian Country. Efforts to find a solution that works for all parties - the tribes and the state - have stalled, but one Oklahoma Congressman is trying to get the ball rolling.
Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole has proposed a bill that he hopes will help alleviate the strain on the tribal districts. One week ago, Rep. Tom Cole introduced legislation in Congress that he feels could at least provide a partial solution to the uncertainty and stress caused by the McGirt ruling.
"I think our office has probably done more on [this] than most others, no offense to anybody," said Rep. Cole, (R) OK-4, "and somebody needed to run a risk and put something out there and we did."
The Cherokee Nation and Chickasaw Nation Criminal Jurisdiction Compacting Act of 2021, as the bill's title suggests, would allow those two tribes to negotiate compacts with the state on criminal jurisdiction. This because McGirt determined the tribes' pre-statehood reservations, as well as those of the Creek, Choctaw and Seminole Nations, were never disestablished.
"We were hopeful that out of Oklahoma would come a unified proposal from the state government, local government and the tribes," Rep. Cole said in an interview, "and there’s certainly a lot of overlap and how they think about things, but for whatever reason we haven’t gotten that."
There is overlap, Cole says, in that all parties agree the federal government needs to put more money into law enforcement in Indian Country. But there is disagreement on the need for Tribal-State compacts. Some of the tribes say that will only weaken their sovereignty.
"I respect their opinion," said Cole, "I just don’t see it that way. I mean, how can giving the tribe something it doesn’t have now, in terms of governmental authority, be undermining sovereignty? It strengthens it."
Rep. Cole says the fact that Oklahoma isn't speaking with one voice on this complicates things, but he says someone had to start somewhere.
"If somebody wants to be critical of this, I have no problem with that whatsoever," Cole stated, "just tell me what you would do instead."
The bill was double assigned. to the House Natural Resources and Judiciary committees, and isn't likely to go anywhere fast. Cole says this could easily take several more years to resolve.