TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — U.S. Attorney Bill Barr promised more manpower and federal aid to Oklahoma on Wednesday to help tribal governments and federal prosecutors deal with an increase in criminal cases stemming from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
During a visit to the Cherokee Nation headquarters, Barr said the U.S. Department of Justice plans to fund two federal prosecutor positions in the northern and eastern U.S. districts of Oklahoma to handle the increased caseloads.
The high court’s July ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma determined that a large swath of eastern Oklahoma remains a Muscogee (Creek) Nation Indian reservation. As a result, either the federal government or the tribal nation has jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against Native Americans, not the state.
“Obviously we didn’t plan on the McGirt decision when we were deploying the resources from the last budget cycle, but we have pressing needs now for our prosecutors and for the prison system,” Barr said during a meeting with Cherokee Nation leaders and U.S. attorneys from the two districts.
Longer term, Barr said he anticipates funding 30 new prosecutors in Oklahoma, along with about a dozen other professional positions, to help tribes and federal prosecutors handle the increase in cases.
In the northern district of Oklahoma, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores reported 114 new criminal indictments since August, while the office typically handles 230 indictments in an entire year. Similarly in the eastern district headquartered in Muskogee, U.S. Attorney Brian Kuester said his office has indicted about 50 cases since the McGirt ruling in July, while his office usually averages about 100 indictments in a year.
“It’s certainly changed our focus. Almost everyone is now working on criminal cases,” Kuester said.
The new federal prosecutors hired in Oklahoma are expected to be cross-designated to be able to prosecute criminal cases in federal and tribal courts, Barr said.
Meanwhile, Barr said he is continuing to work with Oklahoma’s federal congressional delegation to come up with a “legislative approach” to address the McGirt decision.
Since that ruling, dozens of criminal defendants convicted of crimes within the traditional boundaries of other Oklahoma-based tribes with similar treaty histories as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation are asking to be retried in federal or tribal court, said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who is also an attorney.
“Partnerships at every level of law enforcement will be needed as we begin to move forward, post McGirt,” Hoskin said, “and the Cherokee Nation is committed to accepting these challenges head on.”
While it is widely believed the ruling will extend to the Five Tribes, it currently only applies to Muscogee (Creek) Nation, but they didn't get an invitation. Ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Jonodev Chaudheri said now getting an in-person meeting with Barr was a missed opportunity.
"There are certainly matters that we would love to discuss with him regarding our efforts to collaborate with our sovereign partners to ensure public safety, but also to take advantage of opportunities across the board," Chaudheri said.