Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
politics

Oklahoma, Business Groups Get Supreme Court Review in Murder Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an unusual death penalty case that could have outsize implications for businesses operating in Oklahoma.

The justices will review a lower court decision that stripped Oklahoma of the power to prosecute American Indians in much of the eastern part of the state. The ruling also called into question Oklahoma’s regulatory authority in historically tribal territories.

Business groups and the Trump administration joined Oklahoma in urging Supreme Court review. Oklahoma told the justices the federal appeals court decision "will impose intolerable and destabilizing uncertainty throughout half the state."

In throwing out Patrick Dwayne Murphy’s death sentence, the appeals court said that only the federal government had the power to prosecute him because the murder Murphy committed took place on land that is still part of the Creek Nation reservation.

The three-judge panel said in a 126-page opinion that Congress didn’t take the necessary steps to "disestablish" the Creek reservation in preparation for Oklahoma becoming a state in 1907.

"Because Mr. Murphy is an Indian and because the crime occurred in Indian country, the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction," the panel said. "Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction."

Murphy was convicted of the 1999 mutilation and murder of his former girlfriend’s lover, George Jacobs. Both men were members of the Creek Nation.

Five Tribes

Although the Murphy case directly concerns only the Creek Nation, the appeals court’s reasoning could also affect land once inhabited by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes, which have similar histories.

Murphy’s lawyers urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal. They said the appeals court correctly relied on a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that requires Congress to show a clear intent to change a reservation’s boundaries.

The Trump administration said the ruling would upend century-old understandings. The U.S. government would suddenly have exclusive responsibility to prosecute crimes committed by or against Native Americans in most of eight counties, including the city of Tulsa, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the court.

"That expansion could result in a massive increase in the federal government’s Indian-related law-enforcement responsibilities," Francisco argued in court papers.

Trade groups for the Oklahoma oil and gas, ranching and farming industries said the ruling also would reverberate outside the criminal context, stripping power from the state and giving it to Native American tribes. The groups said tribes would potentially be able to impose taxes, issue regulations and force businesses and individuals into tribal courts.

The case is Royal v. Murphy, 17-1107.

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