Supreme Court rejects Tulsa’s claim in Native American traffic law dispute

The Supreme Court rules on Tulsa's request that it be allowed to enforce municipal ordinances, including traffic laws, against Native Americans.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court rejected Tulsa’s attempt to block an earlier court ruling which cast doubt on the Oklahoma City’s ability to enforce its municipal ordinances including traffic laws against Native Americans.

The justices have left the ruling of the appeals court in place. This ruling stated that, due to a Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that expanded tribe authority in Oklahoma Tulsa did not have exclusive jurisdiction in issuing traffic citations.

In a short statemen t Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted the litigation would continue in lower court and that the City may have other arguments that could be successful. He said the city could continue to enforce their municipal laws, even against Indians.

In 2020, the ruling in a case named McGirt V. Oklahoma determined that large areas of eastern Oklahoma are Native American land. This includes Tulsa.

The ruling was a significant victory for tribal groups, who have struggled in the past to assert their sovereignty.

Oklahoma has many tribes, but the city and its surrounding area are under the jurisdiction of the “five tribes”. The five tribes – the Muscogee, Seminole (Creek), Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw – were forced to move west during the Trail of Tears in the late 19th century. Tulsa is located on Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee land

Justin Hooper was a member from the Choctaw Nation who challenged a fine of $150 he received by Tulsa Municipal Court after he was caught speeding. He claimed that the court had no jurisdiction because he was Native American and cited the 2020 Supreme Court decision.

The city countered by stating that the Curtis Act of 1898 gave it such authority. It also stated that Indian Country cities were incorporated under this law. The law was passed before Oklahoma became a state in 1917.

Tulsa appealed to the Supreme Court, after the Denver-based Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hooper in July.

In court documents, Tulsa lawyers stated that “the effect of this ruling is that the City of Tulsa and other similar Oklahoma cities in eastern and southern Oklahoma cannot enforce municipal ordinances on Indian residents who violate them inside City limits.”

The city can remedy the situation by implementing cross-deputization with tribal police. These agreements are already common in the state.

In court documents, the tribes stated that other municipalities from eastern Oklahoma had cooperated with them on traffic tickets. In this system, city police issue tickets against tribal members. The tribe then enforces the tickets and returns the majority of the revenue to the city.

After the ruling by the appeals court, Kevin Stitt warned that “there would be no rule law in eastern Oklahoma if the ruling is allowed to stand.”

In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled to reduce the impact from the McGirt decision in a ruling which expanded the state’s power over tribal groups.

The court gave tribes a surprise win earlier this year when it dismissed a challenge against the Indian Child Welfare Act. This federal law is intended to keep Native American families together during the foster care or adoption process.

In a separate water rights case, the court ruled in favor of Navajo Nation.

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