Posted on: Aug , 2020

Recent national headlines caused shockwaves of speculation and worry throughout the oil and gas community. As you’ve likely heard, on July 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, declaring that nearly half of Oklahoma falls under the jurisdiction of Indian reservation land.

The Supreme Court ruling arose from a case called McGirt v. Oklahoma. Jimcy McGirt, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, had been convicted of sex crimes against a child on Creek Reservation land. He returned to court to argue that Oklahoma never had jurisdiction to prosecute him in the case. The high court agreed with him, ruling that crimes on reservation land, involving Native Americans, don’t fall under state jurisdiction, but should be prosecuted under federal law.

It’s clear that this decision will have a major impact on criminal justice, as it threw into question jurisdictional issues related to criminal prosecutions in that part of the state. But many in the oil and gas industry worry that this makes the validity of oil and gas leases murky.

However, according to Judge Michael Burrage, co-counsel of the Whitten Burrage Law Firm in Oklahoma City, the key word here is “crimes.” Judge Burrage summed up the facts thusly:

  • The McGirt case has no impact on oil and gas cases, including leases.
  • McGirt is a criminal case dealing with a federal criminal statute, The Major Crime Act.
  • The Supreme Court held for jurisdiction under this act because tribal boundaries are still intact.
  • As the opinion points out, this ruling does not address civil issues or jurisdiction.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held years ago, in a Montana case, that tribes have no jurisdiction over non-Indians in matters not on tribal trust lands.

It’s not every day that we get to explore the complexities of a major Supreme Court decision as it relates to our work. Oil and gas professionals should not panic over this ruling, which specifically relates to criminal, and not civil, cases. If you have questions about the impact of this decision, or any other legal matters related to land leases, we’re always here to help.

And, if you’d like to read more about the ruling, here are some links to the coverage from CNN, NPR, and the NY Times.