MUSKOGEE, Oklahoma – The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied relief on Tuesday for members of the Cherokee Nation who alleged certain municipalities and the state were "unjustly enriched" when they collected fines and fees levied against defendants whose state prosecutions would be impossible following the McGirt decision.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit named Gov. Kevin Stitt and state district attorney's and municipalities located within the boundaries of Muscogee Nation as defendants. The lawsuit, filed within days of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, sought a refund of "all or at least a portion of the money acquired without lawful authority."
Plaintiffs' counsel alleged their clients' convictions were void because the courts that levied the fines and costs lacked personal and subject matter required to render judgment as a result of the McGirt decision. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed in that landmark decision the historic boundaries of the Muscogee Nation for purposes of federal criminal law.
The McGirt decision was extended by the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals to apply to other reservations granted by treaty to tribes forced to relocate in Eastern Oklahoma. Those decisions require crimes alleged to have been committed by members of federally recognized tribes on those reservations — or when a victim is Native — be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts.
Plaintiffs argued their convictions were voided automatically by the McGirt ruling, and "there's nothing left for a court to do" other than order the refunds they sought. Oklahoma Supreme Court justices disagreed, stating a "final judgment and sentence can only be vacated through a timely appeal or by seeking post-conviction relief" available pursuant to the Post-Conviction Procedure Act.
"Plaintiffs are correct that a judgment and sentence entered by a court without subject matter jurisdiction is void ..., however, the soundness of their argument stops there," justices state in the near-unanimous opinion. "Contrary to Plaintiffs' notion, their convictions and sentences did not simply vanish the moment the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in McGirt."
The justices state "plaintiffs can prove no set of facts which would entitle them to relief," upholding the trial court's dismissal of the case and denying plaintiffs' an opportunity to amend their petition.
City Attorney Roy Tucker described the decision as a "win for the state and its municipalities," of which the city of Muskogee was named as one of several municipal defendants. Tucker said while the decision was "not entirely surprising" in light of earlier decisions, it "affirms that McGirt does not apply retroactively to criminal convictions, including those in municipal court, but also affirmed that state imposed procedural mechanisms necessary to challenge convictions must still be followed."
“When the McGirt decision came down from the U.S. Supreme Court, there were, unsurprisingly, many issues that remained unsettled," Tucker said. "Slowly, as litigants challenge the application of the McGirt decision to more narrow issues, a more full understanding of the impact is emerging," and it has become "clear that McGirt did not apply retroactively to criminal convictions already final at the time McGirt was announced."
Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Edwards described the decision released Tuesday as "very well reasoned." He said the court, in its Nicholson v. Stitt opinion, "correctly points out that this is just an attempt to collaterally attack criminal convictions, which there are numerous laws and procedure that are set out how that can be done."
"The Court correctly points out that this is not the way to do that," Edwards said. "This case, along with the Court of Criminal Appeals case, State v. Matloff, which found that McGirt would not be retroactively applied to cases where the appeal has previously been heard and affirmed, clearly puts limits on how McGirt will be applied in the future on cases that have been previously decided."
Edwards said there must be some finality in judgments, "otherwise cases would be litigated forever." He said if the Nicholson case "had been decided in any other fashion, it would have put the State and municipalities in extreme financial difficulties over past fines and costs collected."
D.E. Smoot writes for the Muskogee Phoenix.