U.S. Attorney General Barr visits Cherokee Nation to talk McGirt decision
TAHLEQUAH – With tribal and other jurisdictions still feeling their way in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, the Cherokee Nation on Sept. 30 welcomed U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr.
Barr was joined in a roundtable discussion by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and CN Attorney General Sara Hill. Also attending were Brian Kuester, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, and Trent Shores, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
The discussion was not open to the public. Hoskin, Barr and Shores gave opening statements to the media and did not field questions.
“It is very encouraging when leaders from Washington, D.C., visit Indian Country to see firsthand the great work the tribal nations are doing, and also to hear some of the challenges we are facing,” Hoskin said.
Barr said meeting “short-term challenges” was a priority for the federal government after the McGirt ruling.
“I know McGirt is on everyone’s mind,” Barr said. “In Washington, the Department of Justice is working closely with the Oklahoma delegation to try to come up with a legislative approach that is supported by all sides. But as we do that, we are committed to implementing it and meeting the challenges we’re facing right now, which is a question of resources.”
The federal budget for fiscal year 2020 was allocated months before the McGirt ruling.
With many convicted Native Americans expecting to be retried within federal or tribal courts, many jurisdictions faced “pressing needs,” Barr said.
“We sought to address that initially with some temporary assignments of prosecutors and other professionals from around the country to augment the Northern and Eastern districts here,” he said. “That has had an effect. I’m told by Trent that since August his office has prosecuted 114 cases, whereas in a typical year the entire year would be 230 cases.”
Barr said help was on its way in the new federal budget as he spoke on the last day of FY 2020. He said the Special Assistant U.S. Attorney program would staff the Northern and Eastern Oklahoma districts with two prosecutors each at a cost of $2 million over three years, and those attorneys would be “cross-designated” to operate in tribal and federal courts.
The “longer-term view,” Barr said, was the reassigning of professionals from elsewhere in the country to meet the acute need in Oklahoma. “(We) have just gone through an exercise of taking slots… 30 prosecutorial slots, 10 other professional slots and additional slots for victims experts and assistance to shift those slots to Oklahoma so they can meet the federal responsibilities here.”
More funding is allocated to tribal grants through the DOJ.
“The department is awarding over $296 million throughout the country for tribal grants that will improve public safety, serve victims of crime, support law enforcement, COVID assistance and the support of youth programs in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, as well as research and technical assistance for these communities,” Barr said. “This funding will be almost $40 million allocated to Oklahoma and over $7.6 million to the Cherokee Nation.”
While funding to cover the cost of retrying many Native defendants is a big topic, another is the new questions raised by McGirt v. Oklahoma about where jurisdictions begin and end for tribal, federal, state and local entities.
“The same federal and state agencies with which we have collaborated for decades through cross-deputizations, partnerships, federal level, state level – those agencies are now more vulnerable than ever,” Hoskin said. “As a result of the McGirt decision, defendants throughout the reservations of the Five Tribes who have been charged with crimes in state court are asking to be retried in federal court or tribal court.”
Hoskin said many officers for non-Native law enforcement agencies are learning about tribal boundaries and jurisdictions “for the first time.”
“(Hill) has worked day in and day out to meet with other prosecutors in northeast Oklahoma,” Hoskin said. “She currently has two Cherokee Nation attorneys training with Jack Thorpe, one of our local district attorneys whose district lies primarily inside the Cherokee Nation reservation. Her office is tracking hundreds of cases that need to be tried in federal or tribal courts. Partnerships at every level of law enforcement will be needed as we begin to move forward post-McGirt.”