The U.S. Supreme Court has adjourned without taking decisive action on a case that might reconfigure the relationship between Native American tribes and the state of Oklahoma in a very big way forever.
The high court punted the case of convicted killer Patrick Dwayne Murphy for reconsideration next fall. With Justice Neil Gorsuch recused from the case, the delay suggests the justices may have been evenly split on the complicated and, at least as far as Oklahoma goes, far-reaching dispute.
Murphy was convicted in state court of attacking George Jacobs Sr. on Aug. 28, 1999, cutting his throat and severing his genitals before throwing him in a ditch to die. Murphy was sentenced to death. His case went through eight previous appeals prior to a 2017 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the state lacked jurisdiction to try the case.
Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe and the crime occurred within the historic treaty boundaries of the Creek Nation. The 10th Circuit found that Congress never finally dissolved the Creek reservation it created by treaty in 1866, meaning the tribe or the federal government would have jurisdiction over the alleged crime, but not the state.
The implications concerning potentially hundreds of criminal cases involving tribal members or land is concerning enough, but some have argued a broad ruling in Murphy’s favor could have implications throughout eastern Oklahoma and well beyond criminal court.
In its appeal, the state argued that if the ruling stands, “Oklahoma stands on the brink of the most radical jurisdictional shift since statehood.”
The Creek Nation downplays the potential implications but recognizes it as critical in future state-tribe relations. The tribe didn’t initiate the case, but, with its sovereignty rights on the line, was forced to take part.
There are as many opinions about the potential implications of the case as there are experts on Indian sovereignty. The nature and scope of those implications depend on what the Supreme Court does, and at this point, it’s not doing anything for a year.
The high court’s failure to decide gives state, federal and tribal officials extra time to think through the case and prepare for a variety of possibilities. We urge them all to use the time wisely and in a way that balances the interests of the tribes and the citizens of Oklahoma.