State’s high court punts case challenging Oklahoma lawmakers’ tribal compact extensions

Legislators still face a legal challenge from Gov. Kevin Stitt

By: - October 17, 2023 3:30 pm

The state’s highest court this week refused to hear a case related to legislative tribal compact extensions. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers’ decision to extend tribal compacts without the governor’s blessing withstood its first legal challenge after the state’s highest court refused to hear the case. 

In a 6-3 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court announced Monday that it would not hear a case brought by a conservative nonprofit against House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. The lawsuit questioned whether lawmakers violated state law. 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court did not issue an opinion explaining why it refused to consider the case. 

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ lawsuit alleged that lawmakers’ decision to extend tribal tobacco compacts through Senate Bill 26X was unconstitutional in part because the bill was considered during a “budget-related special session,” originated in the wrong chamber and passed without the required supermajority needed to raise revenue. 

OCPA argued lawmakers’ decision to extend the compacts effectively raised revenue from at least two groups of people — tribes whose compacts have expired and their members who will be subject to taxes that could have been avoided at tribal smoke shops had the compacts expired.  

“We are pleased with the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling on this frivolous lawsuit,” Treat said in a statement. “We knew all along the claims brought by OCPA were baseless and in no way had merit on what the Legislature did in overriding these vetoes. By throwing out this case, the Supreme Court ruled appropriately and in favor of the Legislature’s ability to do its job.” 

OCPA and McCall didn’t return messages seeking comment as of press time.

The lawsuit was one of two the legislative leaders faced over a late-session decision to extend some tribal motor vehicle registration and tobacco compacts through 2024 after Stitt’s negotiations with tribal leaders stalled.  

Gov. Kevin Stitt also sued McCall and Treat on the grounds that only he has the authority to negotiate compacts, not lawmakers. Oral arguments in that case are set for Dec. 7. 

OCPA wrote in its lawsuit that it wasn’t challenging legislators’ ability to renegotiate compacts.

In a statement, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said that Oklahoma law is clear on the Legislature’s authority to write and pass bills, including those on tribal compacts.  

“As with Gov. Stitt’s attempts to destabilize this process and prevent intergovernment agreements with the tribes, the OCPA’s arguments are legally baseless,” he said. “OCPA’s hostility to tribal sovereignty is longstanding, ill informed, and woefully out of touch with the mainstream in Oklahoma.” 

Multiple tribes, including the Cherokee and Choctaw nations, had pushed back against OCPA’s assertions. 

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said in a statement that he appreciated the decision.

“We continue to hope the ultimate outcome of this case will confirm the Legislature acted within its constitutional powers by extending compacts with tribal nations,” Batton said. “Most importantly, we will continue to seek ways to cooperate and collaborate with state government for the benefit of all Oklahomans.”

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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.