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Cherokee Nation prepares for influx of court cases

TULSA — With a ruling expected as soon as Thursday to affirm a broader jurisdiction for Cherokee Nation courts, the tribe has already begun a massive expansion of its criminal justice system, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told the Tulsa World.

The tribe will need $35 million a year to fund more courtrooms, more prosecutors and more law enforcement officers, and even more detention space, the chief said.

“The Cherokee Nation is moving very quickly,” Hoskin said Wednesday. “We’re bringing a lot of resources in.”

Last July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation had not been disestablished when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, which expanded the tribe’s responsibility for prosecuting crimes that happen on the reservation.

The Supreme Court case, known as McGirt v. Oklahoma, technically involved only the Creek Nation, but the legal reasoning will inevitably be applied to all five major tribes in the state, Hoskin said.

Indeed, several Oklahoma courts have already applied the Supreme Court’s decision to other cases, ruling that state authorities lack jurisdiction over criminal cases that occur within the Cherokee Nation’s 14-county jurisdiction and involve either a Cherokee defendant or victim.

Some of those cases are now before the Oklahoma Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule on one case as soon as Thursday, setting a precedent for the other cases as well.

“I don’t have any doubt whatsoever” that the McGirt ruling will be applied to the Cherokee Nation, Hoskin said. “The treaty language and the legal history is substantially identical” with the Creek Nation’s.

To prepare for a larger role in law enforcement across northeast Oklahoma, the tribe is already recruiting 13 new Cherokee marshals, he said. “And I think we’re going to need some more.”

Hoskin also recently appointed two new Cherokee district judges, with the possibility of expanding that number. And the tribe will need additional courtrooms to handle hundreds of additional trials.

“We’ve not had to build courthouses out in the communities,” Hoskin said, noting that courtrooms in Tahlequah have been sufficient for the tribe until now. “We’re looking to lease space out in the different communities so we can have court close to where it’s needed.”

While preparing the meet the new challenges of McGirt, Hoskin also renewed his call for Congress to pass new legislation that would allow Oklahoma tribes to negotiate compacts with the state to handle certain types of criminal cases.

“We have as much interest as anyone else in making sure that there’s this blanket of protection across the region,” Hoskin said, “and that criminal defendants are going to be treated fairly but held accountable, that victims are going to be cared for, and that when people pick up the phone to call 911 they have the same sense of security as before McGirt.