How does a child sex offender’s appeal of his criminal conviction result in half the State of Oklahoma – 113 years after it was admitted as the 46th State in the Union – being declared “Indian Lands” and given back to the Creek Nation Native Americans? That is the crazy plot not of a Best-Selling novel, but of the United States Supreme Court case McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18-9526, decided 5-4 late this term on July 9, 2020 in a ground-breaking majority opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
To understand McGirt’s impact we must start with its historical context. Roughly 180 years ago, a group of indigenous Native Americans known as the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole - lived as autonomous nations throughout the American Deep South, as they had for hundreds of years before. As our new United States nation grew, however, European Americans were growing in number and had designs on the land for expansion of the young country. Not surprisingly, these designs didn’t include a place for Native Americans.
The "Indian Problem"
To remedy this so-called “Indian Problem,” the federal government imposed a forced relocation plan to remove the Native Americans from the Deep South. This plan, first championed by George Washington, evolved and was codified in American law and history by President Andrew Jackson, when he successfully pushed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress (over pioneer Davy Crockett’s fervent, raccoon-capped objection!). It was the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that authorized the federal government to extinguish all Indian title to Deep South lands, and to fully and finally remove the Native Americans by any means necessary.
To peacefully execute this plan, the federal government made a promise to the Five Civilized Tribes that if they agreed to remove themselves voluntarily, they would forever be granted replacement land out in the frontier American West. Had they not agreed, of course, the federal government was more than ready to remove them by force. Realizing they’d been given a Godfather-like “offer you can’t refuse,” the Tribes agreed that they would remove West, in reliance on this promise. One of the Five Civilized Tribes who accepted the government’s offer was the Creek Nation (who, while not a party to McGirt, became the biggest beneficiary of its ultimate holding). That almost 200-year-old promise is where the story of McGirt v. Oklahoma begins.
In what is known in American history as the “Trail of Tears,” beginning in the 1820s and into the 1830s, approximately 60,000 Native American men, women and children were uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced as refugees to pick up and walk hundreds of miles West on faith that the federal government’s promise would be honored. The “Trail of Tears” is a traumatic part of Native American history, as more than 4,000 Native Americans died from exposure, disease and starvation before ever reaching their promised lands. A promise that was made, but never fully fulfilled.
As Justice Gorsuch summarized in his majority opinion:
On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever. In exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the U.S. government agreed by treaty that ‘[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” Treaty with the Creeks, Arts. I, XIV, Mar. 24, 1832, 7 Stat. 366, 368 (1832 Treaty).
It was against this great historical backdrop that the otherwise unremarkable criminal appeal of McGirt v. Oklahoma arose.
An Otherwise Unremarkable Appeal
By all accounts, Jimcy McGirt, a Native American, was an unsavory character and is by no means a hero of this story. In 1997, the State of Oklahoma convicted him of molesting, raping and forcibly sodomizing a four-year-old girl, his wife’s granddaughter. His other appellate grounds apparently unconvincing, and the individual circumstances of his case so horrific, his appellate lawyers – as good lawyers do – instead focused elsewhere, on an issue that had been simmering under the surface of Oklahoma state law for years. Perhaps, the lawyers argued, regardless of Mr. McGirt’s heinous conduct, his conviction is null and void for reasons other than the facts of the underlying case all together? Perhaps Oklahoma did not even have jurisdiction – the power – to criminally prosecute and/or to convict him in the first place, because the crime, as heinous as it was – was committed not on state land, but instead on federal “Indian Lands.” Land that Oklahoma has owned and controlled for over 100 years, but that the Creek Nation had been promised, pursuant to treaty, long ago.
Great headwinds worked against McGirt and his appellate counsel, not the least of which was that all of the main parties involved – the United States, the State of Oklahoma - and even the Creek Nation itself – had acquiesced to Oklahoma’s criminal jurisdiction and control over the land for the past 100 years.
As Justice Gorsuch succinctly put it, the question presented in McGirt was “did [McGirt] commit his crimes in Indian Territory?” Or was the crime committed on lands, as everyone seemed to assume for the past century, owned and controlled by State of Oklahoma?
If Eastern Oklahoma (including the large city of Tulsa) was in fact “Indian territory,” i.e. a reservation granted by the United States after the “Trail of Tears” promise, then it would be federal land and pursuant to the Major Crimes Act (MCA), McGirt could not be prosecuted by the State of Oklahoma, but could only be prosecuted by the federal government in federal court. And if that were the case, then McGirt’s conviction would be void, as Oklahoma had no more power to prosecute and convict McGirt of his crimes than you or I do sitting in our comfiest chair.
On its face, the question sounds almost ridiculous. Oklahoma has been a State prosecuting and convicting criminals, including in the areas of Eastern Oklahoma, for over 100 years. Land that McGirt now argues were never under Oklahoma’s power to control, but instead were always part of the Creek Reservation. Oklahoma countered, of course, with what seems like the more logical and pragmatic answer to that question – that through subsequent legislation, Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907, and the passage of generations without recognizing the Creek Nation’s sovereignty over these lands – that even if the land had been the Creek Nation’s at one point, that ended long ago. Oklahoma presented its argument as if it were a “no brainer.”
Justice Gorsuch's "Textualist" Approach
Justice Gorsuch saw it differently. Siding with the 4 more liberal Supreme Court Justices, Justice Gorsuch wrote for the majority of the Court finding that the land did belong to the Creek Nation, that it was not a part of Oklahoma, and that therefore McGirt’s conviction must be vacated.
Most compelling, however, was how Justice Gorsuch boldly advanced his “textualist” approach in this opinion, regardless of whether it led to a “liberal” or “conservative” outcome.
Justice Gorsuch was President Donald J. Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee. He was championed as a staunch political conservative who would push the Supreme Court to the right. While no one can doubt Justice Gorsuch’s conservative bona fides, what was less understood by the talking heads in the media was that his true convictions are not to political ideology – but to his own brand of “textualist” legal philosophy.
Through this “textualist” lens, Justice Gorsuch ignored all of the numerous arguments over whether the argued outcomes would be best, most reasonable, or most fair and just. Instead, he focused squarely on the words used by Congress when it made and carried out its “Trail of Tears” promise to the Creek Nation. To that end, Justice Gorsuch posited the premise that once a reservation is established by Congress, the only question is whether Congress ever took that reservation away. You can’t look to the States. The law is clear that the States do not have any power to declare or negate a federally granted Indian Reservation. You also can’t look to the Courts. The Courts cannot judicially legislate a reservation into, or out of, existence. Therefore, what must be focused on exclusively is whether Congress ever expressly broke its “Trail of Tears” promise and ended the Creek Nation’s reservation. For that “[t]here is only one place we may look:” Justice Gorsuch said matter-of-factly, “the Acts of Congress.”
In applying this purely “textualist” approach, Justice Gorsuch was unyielding:
History shows that Congress knows how to withdraw a reservation when it can muster the will. Sometimes, legislation has provided an “explicit reference to cessation” or an “unconditional commitment ... to compensate the Indian tribe for its opened land.” Ibid. Other times, Congress has directed that tribal lands shall be “restored to the public domain.” Hagen v. Utah, 510 U.S. 399, 412 (1994)(emphasis deleted). Likewise, Congress might speak of a reservation as being “discontinued”, “abolished”, or “vacated.” Mattz v. Arnett, 412 U.S. 481, 504, n. 22 (1973). Disestablishment has “never required any particular form of words,” Hagen, 510 U.S., at 411. But it does require that Congress clearly express its intent to do so, “commonly with an explicit reference to cessation or other language evidencing the present and total surrender of all tribal interests.” Nebraska v. Parker, 577 U.S. 481 (2016).
Oklahoma attempted to argue that either a reservation was never established, or the text of the subsequent Acts of Congress, if not expressly, at least effectively terminated any reservation that may have ever existed. But in Justice Gorsuch’s deft hands, this argument was doomed to fail. As Justice Gorsuch famously and efficiently proclaimed in his now famous Bostock v. Clayton County Title VII opinion earlier this term: “(o)nly the written word is law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.” This is the textualist (almost religious) creed, and to ignore it as the foundation of any argument before this Court in its current make-up is done at one’s own peril.
To Justice Gorsuch (and most times a majority of this Court), one must set aside all else – what “chaos” may ensue from a ruling, what the conventional wisdom is on an issue (or here, has been for over a hundred years), or – more controversially put – what may be the best or most just outcome of a dispute – and decide disputes based solely on the written words of the law at issue. To a textualist, all citizens should be able to rely on the law as written, regardless of what even a majority may believe was intended by the law, or what an individual jurist may believe in a given case is a more just outcome. It is Judge Gorsuch’s purely textualist approach that dictated the outcome in this case, more than any political ideology or concern.
Once Justice Gorsuch rejected Oklahoma’s argument on the text of the law, he further applied his own textualist principles to dismiss the others. Oklahoma’s argument that the “historical practices and demographics, both around the time of, and long after the enactment of, all the relevant legislation” controlled was soundly rejected. To ignore the plain meaning of the words of a statute based upon matters outside the text, in Justice Gorsuch’s thinking, would risk, as he stated, “substituting stories for statutes.” Stories, to a textualist, are inherently more unreliable than the plain meaning of words on a page. Here, historical stories also typically favor history’s victors and undermine its victims. In this case, Justice Gorsuch found an exemplar case to divorce his “textualist” approach from previous criticism from the left that it is merely a conservative tool, or means to dictate conservative ends. Once you accept stories over the written word of law, to Justice Gorsuch, then the law itself is unmoored and subject only to the prevailing political winds of the time.
Justice Roberts' Striking Dissent
Almost as striking as Justice Gorsuch’s triumphant planting of his textualist flag this term in Bostock and now McGirt, was Justice Roberts’ continued trend towards a more pragmatic and cautious legal approach. While that trend was highlighted more by pundits in cases where he sided with the more liberal justices, in McGirt, Justice Roberts again (even though he sided with the conservatives) championed the narrower and less ideological approach.
Writing for the four dissenting Justices, Justice Roberts concluded that “a century of practice confirms that the Five Tribes’ prior domains were extinguished.” The dissent ignored what Justice Gorsuch and the other majority justices could not. That to hold as such would be to allow Oklahoma to re-cast its decades of illegal practices, usurpation of authority, and mistreatment of the Creek Nation into “historical custom and practice” that it could then use to justify its dishonoring the “Trail of Tears” promise.
McGirt most assuredly creates sensational headlines due to its massive shift of power and authority from Oklahoma to the Creek Nation. Most articles reviewing this case focus on the uncertainty it will cause in matters between Native Americans and States within whose borders Indian Reservations exist. However, McGirt is also important for another, less sensational, but perhaps more impactful assertion regarding the rule of law in America going forward – the rise of Justice Gorsuch’s brand of “textualism.”
To Justice Gorsuch, the rule of law and the word of the law are paramount to all other interests. As the saying goes – one’s word is their bond. And it is that word – and that word alone - that should always be honored, whether you are a person, or a country. Justice Gorsuch closed his opinion consistently:
Today, we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.
While perhaps over 100 years late, in McGirt, the United States Supreme Court affirmed that what you promise must be honored, and in doing so, belatedly (and surprisingly) fulfilled a “Trail of Tears” promise most thought died long ago.