November 18, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Jurisdiction Over Crimes Committed in Indian Country is Properly Under the Federal Government

The Tenth Circuit of Appeals issued its opinion in Murphy v. Royal on Tuesday, August 8, 2017.

Petitioner-Appellant Murphy challenged the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma state court in which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He contended he should have been tried in federal court because he is an Indian and the offense occurred in Indian country. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and remanded to the district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus vacating his conviction and sentence.

The Tenth Circuit addressed four issues in determining whether the state court had jurisdiction: (1) federal habeas corpus review; (2) Indian county jurisdiction generally; (3) Indian reservations; and (4) how a reservation can be disestablished or diminished.

The court found that Murphy’s crime occurred on the Indian Reservation, and therefore, the Oklahoma court lacked jurisdiction. The court reviewed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Section 2254(d) provides three ways to overcome AEDPA deference. The court focused on §2254(d)(1), which states that a state prisoner can qualify for habeas relief by showing a state court decision was “contrary to” federal law that was clearly established by the Supreme Court.

When a state court adjudicates a prisoner’s federal claim on the merits, review under § 2254(d)(1)’s contrary to clause proceeds in three steps: (1) whether there is clearly established federal law that applies to the claim; (2) whether the state court’s decision was contrary to that law; and (3) if the state court rendered a decision that was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent by applying the wrong legal test, applying the correct law. The Circuit assumed that AEDPA supplied the standard of review, therefore the substantive law governing Indian country jurisdiction applies to these claims.

The Major Crimes Act is the jurisdictional statute at the heart of this case and applies to enumerated crimes committed by Indians in Indian country. The jurisdiction is exclusively federal, meaning the State of Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against an Indian in Indian Country.

Congress has provided that “Indian Country” includes all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation. Therefore, all lands within the boundaries of a reservation have Indian country status.

Only Congress can disestablish or diminish a reservation. As Congress possesses plenary power over Indian affairs, including the power to modify or eliminate tribal rights, Congress also has the power to eliminate or reduce a reservation against a tribe’s wishes and without consent. Having recognized this power, the Supreme Court has developed a framework to determine whether Congress has exercised its power with respect to a given reservation.

First, there is a presumption against disestablishment and diminishment, and courts do not lightly infer that Congress has exercised this power. The Supreme Court has required that the congressional determination to terminate be expressed on the face of the Act or be clear from the surrounding circumstances and legislative history.

Next is Congress’s pursuit of a policy called allotment and its relationship to reservation borders. Congress has historically adopted the view that the Indians tribes should abandon their nomadic lives on the communal reservations and settle into an agrarian economy on privately-owned parcels of land. This policy involved Congress dividing, or “allotting,” communal Indian lands into individualized parcels for private ownership by tribal members. Allotment on its own, however, does not disestablish or diminish a reservation, but may alter the boundaries of some reservations.

To distinguish congressional acts that changed a reservation’s borders from those that simply offered non-Indians the opportunity to purchase land within established reservation boundaries, the Supreme Court has developed a three-part framework:

  1. Courts must examine the text of the statute purportedly disestablishing or diminishing the reservation. No particular form of words, however, is necessary to diminish a reservation.
  2. Courts must consider events surrounding the passage of the statute. Courts have found that Congress altered the borders if evidence at step two unequivocally reveals a widely-held understanding that the affected reservation would shrink as a result of the proposed legislation.
  3. Courts must consider events that occurred after the passage of the statute. Evidence to be considered can include Congress’s own treatment of the affected areas, as well as the manner in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local judicial authorities dealt with unallotted open lands.

The Tenth Circuit applied the three-part framework described above and concluded that Congress did not disestablish the Reservation at issue in this case. The court found that the most important evidence, the statutory text, failed to reveal disestablishment at step one. Instead, the relevant statutes contain language affirmatively recognizing the Reservation’s borders. The evidence of contemporaneous understanding and later history, which was considered at steps two and three, is mixed and falls far short of unequivocally revealing a congressional intent to disestablish. Because the application of the framework shows Congress has not disestablished the Reservation, the crime in this case occurred within the Reservation’s boundaries. The State of Oklahoma accordingly lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Murphy.

After applying the three-part framework, the court concluded that Congress has not disestablished the Indian Reservation at issue in this case. The crime in this case occurred in Indian country, Murphy is an Indian, and the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction, not Oklahoma. Murphy’s state conviction and death sentence are thus invalid. The decision whether to prosecute Murphy in federal court rests with the United States and decisions about the borders of the Indian Reservation remain with Congress.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s judgement and REMANDED with instructions to grant Murphy’s application for writ of habeas corpus.

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