Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McGirt v Oklahoma that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation was never disestablished, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma have seen more than four times as many criminal defendants.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Court saw an even bigger increase in cases.
According to a currently unpublished analysis by District Tribal Court Civil Division Judge Stacy Leeds, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation court has seen 30 times as many criminal cases since the decision, along with significant increases in protective orders and traffic cases. Leeds said there’s been no accompanying increase in judges or court staff, but they’ve handled the increased workload in stride. The real challenge has been getting defendants to and from court.
"Because if you think about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation having one court in Okmulgee and that there are people that are being transported from different counties all within that district, how you manage that and how you staff that type of increase — that, I think, is by far the most difficult thing to handle," Leeds said.
Only civil cases are down. Leeds said there’s been a year-over-year decline and companies are pursuing debtors less aggressively.
"So, if we were to fast forward out of a pandemic and back into a normal year, I think that the civil docket will slowly start to increase in the ways that we saw with traffic, protective orders and criminal cases," Leeds said.
There is some nuance to the numbers after McGirt for the federal and tribal courts. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma reported the number of criminal defendants starting July 1. The Supreme Court ruled July 9. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Court reported the number of criminal cases filed starting July 13, the first business day after the ruling.
Leeds said tribes were prepared for the effects of the McGirt case because a 1980s court ruling Oklahoma didn’t have jurisdiction over trust and restricted fee lands led to a revitalization of their court systems.
Leeds, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen and also a law professor at Arizona State University, presented her findings during a webinar on Wednesday hosted by the University of Tulsa College of Law.
Note: KWGS is licensed to the University of Tulsa.