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November 06, 2018

Argument Preview: Carpenter v. Murphy

On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Carpenter v. Murphy, a death penalty case that could redraw the boundaries of Indian territory in Oklahoma. In 2000, a state court jury in McIntosh County, Oklahoma convicted Patrick Dwayne Murphy of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Mr. Murphy raised claims on appeal that trial counsel was ineffective and that he is ineligible for execution because he is intellectually disabled, issues that are not currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. His later habeas appeals also raised a jurisdictional question of whether the state court had the authority to try him in the first place. After the Court of Appeals concluded that the state had no jurisdiction over the case, the State sought review of that decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

Mr. Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation, as was the victim in the case, George Jacobs. In 2004, in a subsequent application for state habeas corpus relief, Mr. Murphy first raised the claim that the State of Oklahoma lacked subject matter jurisdiction to try and convict him, because he is an Indian and the crime occurred on Indian land. Federal law—18 U.S.C. § 1153—gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by or against American Indians in “Indian country”. While the State agreed that Mr. Murphy is a member of the Creek Nation, it disputed the claim that the land on which the murder was committed was Indian territory. After an evidentiary hearing on the issue, the state habeas court ultimately ruled that there was insufficient historical “contact” to show that the land still belonged to the Creek Nation, a decision affirmed by the OCCA on appeal.

After losing again in the federal district court on the jurisdictional question, Mr. Murphy appealed to the Tenth Circuit, which reversed the prior decisions and granted relief. In Royal v. Murphy, a Tenth Circuit panel decided that the OCCA’s judgment must be vacated because the land where the crime was committed was part of a reservation that had never been formally disestablished by Congress. The Tenth Circuit relied on Solem v. Bartlett, 465 U.S. 463 (1984), which provides a test for whether Congress has officially disestablished an Indian reservation that asks if Congress “explicitly indicate[d]” that land is no longer to be considered Indian Territory. Looking to this test, the Circuit found that the Creek Reservation had never been technically disestablished. Therefore, under controlling Supreme Court precedent, the Tenth Circuit found that the land on which the murder had been committed was still Indian territory and therefore the state court lacked jurisdiction to try the case.

In its petition for Supreme Court review, the State argued that allowing the Tenth Circuit decision to stand would have far-reaching implications for Oklahoma, its trial sovereigns, and its residents. The boundary dispute in Carpenter controls 4,600 square miles of land, including most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city. The State argued that a boundary shift would affect not only thousands of criminal cases, but also civil and economic interests via municipal and environmental regulations, and could extend to other tribes with similar claims to reservation land. In support of this argument, the State claimed that if the Tenth Circuit decision is upheld, almost half of the state’s population would fall under the jurisdiction of Indian territory. In his brief opposing certiorari, Mr. Murphy challenged the notion that the decision would have a sweeping impact, saying that the State’s “claims of mass disruption are overstated and misdirected.” He argued that redrawing the boundary would impact only a limited number of criminal cases and noted that federal and state governments and tribal institutions already routinely coordinate on regulatory matters. In addition, numerous laws already exist to govern the interaction of state and tribal laws and to transfer jurisdiction upon mutual agreement as needed.

Claims about the possible impact of the decision have drawn interest from a diverse group of organizations, governments, and businesses. Weighing in on the side of the State at the Supreme Court, U.S. Department of Justice argued in an amicus brief that contrary to the Tenth Circuit’s view, Congress had “de facto” disestablished the Creek Nation’s historic territory when it broke up and allotted the Creek Nation’s land in granting Oklahoma statehood. Entities including the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, the National Congress of American Indians, and Historians, Legal Scholars, and Cherokee Nation have all filed amicus briefs in support of Mr. Murphy. In addition to the United States, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, the Oklahoma Sherriff’s Association, and the States of Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming have all filed amicus briefs supporting reversal of the decision.