WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, confronting the consequences of its ruling last year that much of eastern Oklahoma falls within an Indian reservation, said on Wednesday that it would temporarily block a decision from an Oklahoma court that threw out a state conviction of a death row inmate. The state court had said the Supreme Court’s ruling required the move.
The court’s three liberal members — Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — dissented from the Supreme Court’s order, which gave no reasons and said it would remain in force while the court considered whether to hear the state’s appeal.
But the order suggested that the court might reconsider or narrow its 5-to-4 decision last year in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which said that a vast chunk of Oklahoma, including much of Tulsa, the state’s second-biggest city, was made up of Indian reservations. The decision barred prosecutions of Native Americans on those lands by state or local law enforcement, saying they must instead face justice in federal or tribal courts.
The decision featured an unusual coalition, with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch joining the court’s four-member liberal bloc, which included the three dissenters on Wednesday and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.
Justice Ginsburg’s replacement by Justice Amy Coney Barrett changed the dynamic on the court and may affect the sweep of last year’s ruling.
In a dissent last year, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. warned that the court’s decision would undermine Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.
“The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out,” he wrote.
The new case involved such a conviction, of Shaun M. Bosse, who was sentenced to death for the murders of Katrina Griffin and her two young children. He stabbed Ms. Griffin and her eight-year-old boy to death, locked her six-year-old girl in a closet and set the house on the fire.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters, threw out Mr. Bosse’s conviction under the McGirt decision. That meant he would be transferred to federal custody, and federal prosecutors have said they would retry him.
The state court gave state prosecutors 45 days to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court. Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s attorney general, asked the Supreme Court for a further stay while his office pursued an appeal.
Mr. Bosse is not Native American, but his victims were. Mr. Hunter said the distinction mattered, though earlier cases had determined that crimes committed on reservations by or against Indians could not be prosecuted by state authorities.
Mr. Hunter told the justices that Mr. Bosse’s case was one of hundreds if not thousands in the pipeline. In many of them, Mr. Hunter wrote, retrials would not be possible given statutes of limitations, the loss of evidence and limited resources.
Lawyers for Mr. Bosse said that granting a stay in his case would not affect those other cases. They added that the consequences of the McGirt decision could not have come as a surprise to the state’s lawyers, as they had predicted them in their arguments in that case.