Lesson Plan - Get It!
In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Image by White House official photographer, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.
At the time, many people expressed concern over the president adding another Republican to the Supreme Court.
- What is the problem with that idea?
- Do justices belong to political parties?
Over the course of United States history, there have been thousands of treaties signed between this country and other sovereign powers.
Many were between the U.S. and Native American tribes who lived in states like Georgia and Florida. However, during the 1800s, these tribes were all pushed westward into Oklahoma so that settlers from the United States could farm on former tribal land.
During this relocation, known as the Trail of Tears, these first peoples had to walk the entire trip with only what they could carry. Once they arrived at the designated area of Oklahoma, they signed another treaty with the U.S. government agreeing to recognize it as their new tribal land.
Image by Tcr25, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
As time went on, however, the privileges and rights granted to these people in treaties were steadily forgotten.
One such right was jurisdiction when a tribal member commits a crime on tribal land. This was the central in the 2020 Supreme Court case McGirt v. Oklahoma.
As you watch a portion of the video below, pay attention to why McGirt thought the state of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction.
- What happened when Oklahoma became a state?
McGirt v. Oklahoma: The Decision [SCOTUSbrief] from The Federalist Society:
According to the original treaty with the United States, members of these tribes have a special status when they commit a crime.
If a member of one of the tribes is part of a crime, either victim or perpetrator, that case is no longer under the jurisdiction (control) of the state but falls under federal jurisdiction.
Consider what might happen if someone from Oklahoma committed a crime against a tribal member, and the case went to court in the state of Oklahoma. They jury would consist of all non-tribal members, who might be far less likely to rule in favor of the tribal member.
So the question at the heart of McGirt v. Oklahoma was:
- Are these treaties still valid if nobody can find evidence that they were disestablished?
When this case was heard in 2020, there were four "liberal" justices who tended to vote in favor of historically marginalized people. There were also four "conservative" justices who tended to be very apprehensive about challenging the way things have always been.
This is where Neil Gorsuch comes in.
Even though he was appointed by a Republican president and considered to be "conservative" by many, Gorsuch voted along with the "liberal" justices based upon his own legal reasoning.
This decision confirmed to all five tribes that their claim to the land is still recognized by the U.S. government.
You now have the background information needed to look at how Gorsuch used constitutional principles and legal reasoning when writing the Supreme Court Opinion justifying this decision.
Below is the beginning excerpt from the Opinion of the Court, courtesy of the Supreme Court.
As you read it, pay attention to the included quotes from the original treaty with the Creek nation.
- How did Gorsuch construct this introduction to be as clear and persuasive as possible?
Gorsuch simply states what the U.S. government promised, that the tribes had to endure a lot, and that all the Supreme Court did was hold the United States to its word.
These facts might make it appear as though Gorsuch was simply maintaining the status quo. However, as mentioned in the video, these rights had not been recognized by the U.S. government for over 100 years.
Through legal reasoning, the rights of these five tribes were restored.
- How did the four dissenting justices justify their vote?
Read an excerpt from the Dissenting Opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts.
- What do you think about this legal reasoning?
There are two ideas present here:
- If things have been operating this way for over 100 years, the tribes were obviously disestablished.
- This will create a legal nightmare for Oklahoma courts when countless people in prison use this decision to get a new trial.
- What do you think about this court case?
The decision was 5 to 4 in favor of McGirt and the Creek tribe.
Move on to the Got It? section to review the information about the case before making your own judgment!