Supreme Court to rehear Murphy case
This map shows the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation and other tribal reservations before Oklahoma statehood in 1907. COURTESY
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 said it will rehear arguments in a case involving an Oklahoma man who argued that the state had no right to prosecute him because he is a Native American and the crime occurred on Indian land.
The justices said they will hear a new round of arguments in October for the case of Patrick Murphy, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen who was convicted of killing a fellow tribal citizen in 1999.
The Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Congress never disestablished the MCN reservation. Murphy’s lawyers contend the case should have been under federal jurisdiction and not state jurisdiction.
However, the appeals court put its ruling on hold pending a final Supreme Court decision. That stay looks as if it will remain in place until the justices reach a decision.
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch had recused himself from the case, leaving the court with eight justices who may have deadlocked.
The MCN and other tribes took Murphy’s side, arguing that Congress had not formally disestablished their pre-statehood reservations in Indian Territory.
The MCN also contends that it retains jurisdiction over tribal citizens in all or parts of Creek, Hughes, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, McIntosh, Muskogee, Tulsa, and Wagoner counties.
Oklahoma responded stating that Congress meant to disestablish the reservations because it stripped the MCN of its jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma, its authority and property. The state said Murphy’s claim defied more than 100 years of settled law and boundaries.
Oklahoma also contends that recognizing the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations’ pre-statehood reservations would create economic and judicial chaos in eastern Oklahoma, throwing into question contracts, court judgments and property ownership.
The appeals court in 2018 ruled that Congress’ actions did not meet the test necessary to prove the MCN reservation was disestablished.
However, the appeals court acknowledged that Oklahoma’s unique history regarding tribal land treaties might not fit with Supreme Court precedents in that area of law.
While the federal government has assumed jurisdiction in criminal cases occurring on tribal land, experts say a ruling for Murphy would expand what is considered “Indian Country” across Oklahoma.
Experts say a ruling for Murphy would mean any crime committed by or against a Native American in the boundaries of the MCN reservation would no longer be prosecuted by the state.
Mike McBride III, a Tulsa attorney who specializes in federal Indian law, called the Supreme Court decision to hear more arguments “unusual.”
“Which leads me to believe that maybe they’ve just ran out of time and are still negotiating with each other over an opinion on unresolved questions,” McBride told the Tulsa World. “It could be also that they have a four to four split, but this case has such magnitude that they didn’t want to leave it unresolved, affirming the 10th Circuit decision by virtue of a four to four split.”
The Supreme Court justices did not explain their decision to hear a second round of arguments.