Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today

U.S. Attorney General William Barr told tribal leaders in Oklahoma on Wednesday that additional resources are planned to help address an increase in criminal cases that followed a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Barr said funds were being allocated to hire four federal prosecutors, two each for the eastern and northern districts of Oklahoma, after the decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. They are expected to be cross-designated to be able to prosecute criminal cases in federal and tribal courts, he said.

The Cherokee Nation hosted Barr and two federal prosecutors from the state at its Tahlequah headquarters.

Only the opening remarks were open to the media before Barr, Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., the tribe’s attorney general Sara Hill and U.S. attorneys Trent Shores, Choctaw, and Brian Kuester met with tribal leaders for a roundtable discussion.

One of the topics that was to be discussed was the increase in funding to hire additional prosecutors in the wake of the McGirt decision in July.

The McGirt ruling stated that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation was never explicitly disestablished by Congress and by extension, applies to the Cherokee Nation, according to Hoskin. 

As a result of the ruling, either the federal government or the tribal nation has jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against Native Americans, not the state. Dozens of defendants convicted of crimes within the traditional boundaries of Oklahoma-based tribes have since asked to be retried in federal or tribal court.

“Because we share similar histories and treaties, that [McGirt decision] applies to our Cherokee Nation Reservation,” Hoskin said.

Hoskin noted the tribe’s attorney general has been tracking cases that may need to be retried in tribal or federal courts and that partnerships at all levels of government will be needed moving forward.

“The Cherokee Nation is committed, as it always is, to accepting these challenges head on and continue to seek additional funding and resources so that we can adequately expand our staff of our court systems, attorney general’s office and of course our marshal service,” Hoskin said.

During his remarks, Barr said the Justice Department is working with Oklahoma tribes and the state’s congressional delegation on a possible “legislative approach” that both sides agree on to meet the short-term challenges that have arisen due to the McGirt ruling.

To address the influx of cases, Barr said temporary assignments for department prosecutors across the country have provided some relief. He noted that since last month alone, Shores’ office has tried a little over half of what it normally does in a full year.

“Since August, his office has prosecuted 114 cases, whereas in a typical year, the entire year would be about 230 cases,” Barr said. “So you can see the impact this is having on us.”

In the eastern district headquartered in Muskogee, U.S. Attorney Brian Kuester said his office has indicted about 50 cases since the McGirt ruling, while it usually averages about 100 indictments in a year.

“It’s certainly changed our focus. Almost everyone is now working on criminal cases,” Kuester said.

Barr also announced the Justice Department has awarded more than $296 million in grants to American Indian and Alaska Native communities to improve public safety, serve crime victims and support youth programs, among other things.

“The awards announced today underscore the Department of Justice’s deep commitment to improving public safety in tribal communities throughout the United States,” Barr said in a news release. “This administration will continue to work closely with our tribal partners to guarantee that they have the resources they need to combat violence and bring criminals to justice.”

Barr noted during the meeting with Cherokee leaders that he gained his interest in Indian affairs and federal Indian law during his time working in the Reagan administration. He said the federal government values the strong partnership with the tribe.

“I’m looking to my discussions later this morning to hear perspectives on how we can strengthen our partnership moving forward,” he said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story

Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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