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Opinion: Fears of Oklahoma court case's impact being realized

An effort by the Seminole Nation to tax oil and gas companies working in the tribe’s “jurisdictional area” gives credence to those who worried this summer about the potential scope of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In that decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, the high court said the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation had not been disestablished and thus a child rapist named Jimcy McGirt should have gone to trial in federal court instead of state court. The ruling involved criminal jurisdiction, but the concern has been that it will encompass civil jurisdiction not just for the Creeks but also for the other members of the Five Tribes — the Seminoles, Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws. The state Court of Criminal Appeals is weighing whether to affirm recent state court rulings that those tribes’ reservations were never disestablished.

The hope of state officials was that the tribes would negotiate compacts to resolve jurisdictional disputes over criminal and civil matters, but progress has been slow. Some tribes, including the Seminoles, see that idea as potentially infringing on sovereignty.

The Oklahoman’s Chris Casteel reports that the tribe began telling oil and gas companies recently that they needed a permit from the Seminole Nation to operate on Seminole land and must pay the tribe an 8% gross production tax if actively producing oil or gas.

That tax “would be devastating to Seminole County,” says state Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, who is a partner in a family oil and gas company.

The head of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma told his members that the tribe doesn’t have the authority to do what it is seeking, and said the McGirt decision “threatens to undermine the prosperity of non-Indians and tribal members alike.”

A letter from Attorney General Mike Hunter asks the Seminole Nation to stop sending the notices, saying it has no authority to levy such a tax. Hunter also said it wasn’t clear whether the tribe was claiming jurisdiction within its historical boundaries — most of Seminole County — or on land the federal government had taken into trust for the tribe.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, whose pursuit of a new gaming compact strained his dealings with several tribes, said that what is transpiring now is precisely what he expected after the McGirt ruling.

“I just see endless litigation. …” Stitt told Casteel. “They really believe they can tax oil and gas. Of course that’s not our position. We think that’s reckless and unauthorized and it’s not going to stand.”

Perhaps not. However, Casteel noted that without agreements between the tribes and the state, it might take years to hammer out resolutions to the many issues spawned by the McGirt decision.

It’s a mess all right. In untangling it, a primary hope needs to be that state-tribal relations, which have been so strong and beneficial in Oklahoma for so long, don’t suffer irreparable damage.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›