Alaska court says tribes share custody power

Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) March 2011

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that tribes share jurisdiction with the state in most child custody issues.

Last week's ruling is the second victory for tribal sovereignty advocates in recent months, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The case involved the village of Tanana, which sued the state for refusing to recognize tribal authority to issue adoptions. It was joined by five other villages and tribal organizations.

The state took a position that it had, in almost all cases, “exclusive jurisdiction over child custody proceedings involving Alaska Native children,” according to an advisory opinion issued in 2004 by the attorney general at the time, Gregg Renkes.

In 2007, a Superior Court ruling rejected that argument.

Last week's decision upholds the lower court ruling. The high court said federally recognized Alaska Native tribes “are not necessarily precluded from exercising inherent sovereign jurisdiction” to initiate child custody proceedings, and their judgments should be “entitled to full faith and credit” by the state.

Gov. Sean Parnell’s office wasn’t prepared to comment on the ruling, said spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.

Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said the decision follows one in October by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It refused to review a court ruling that upheld the Kaltag Tribal Council’s ability to control tribal adoptions. In that case, the state had refused to issue a new birth certificate that included the names of the parents in a tribe-approved adoption.

“It was a nice one-two punch for us,” Kendall-Miller said.

She said the disagreement about tribal jurisdiction created difficulties when children in disputed custody cases need health care, enroll for school or apply for social services. The Alaska court’s ruling should spur more cooperation between tribes and state officials, she said.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruling doesn’t resolve all questions surrounding tribal jurisdiction, including whether it extends to parents who aren’t tribal members but adopt Native children, or if it applies to families that have limited or no contact with tribes.

Kendall-Miller said the judgment was expressed in “very clear terms” and gives the state solid direction on how to proceed. Alaska Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister said the ruling doesn’t address specific child-custody issues, which could leave room for interpretation.