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Alaska Supreme Court Affirms Tribal Court Jurisdiction

By | July 18, 2014

The Alaska Supreme Court issued a decision today in a long running tribal court jurisdiction case. The case stems from a Minto tribal court decision that terminated parental rights. The case stems from a Minto tribal court decision that terminated parental rights. The father, Edward Parks, was not a Minto tribal member, so he claimed the court did not have authority over him. He tried to take the case to state court and bypass tribal appellate court saying he was not allowed oral presentation of his argument. Natalie Landreth is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, the legal organization that defended the adoptive parents against the biological father’s challenge. She says there were two areas of legal clarity provided in the decision. The first is that a plaintiff must exhaust the appellate process in tribal court before taking a challenge to state court.

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Landreth: The second thing is it didn’t adopt what the state vigorously argued along with Mr. Parks which was this idea that you have to be allowed to present complex things in an oral argument format, saying tribal courts have to look like state courts, the court rejected that, saying that’s not the case.

What about the issue of tribal court authority over another tribal member not from that community. Was that settled in this decision or is that still out there?

 Landreth: I think that will depend on circumstances of cases where you might have an odd fact pattern, but this decision does clearly says, the jurisdiction is over that child. If that child is a tribal member of that tribe, then that tribal court has jurisdiction. That isn’t ground breaking, they cited the other Alaska tribal court case we’ve had in the last couple of years , which was the Kaltag decision, Judge Burgess said exactly the same thing, so again they did make a decision on that, but they’re not going out on a limb. They’re not doing something divergent from a court simply following the law.

Does this provide more clarity for how the state should see tribal courts and their jurisdiction?

Landreth: Absolutely.  Each one of these cases that we’ve been working on for years, is a separate step forward, a different piece of the puzzle which says what we’ve been advocating all along, which is that these courts do have authority to adjudicate children’s cases. There may be 31 flavors of that but that basic premise has not changed and this case is another piece of that puzzle.

Natalie Landreth is an attorney with NARF.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty says the decision was not far reaching.

Geraghty: The court decided the case on fairly narrow grounds, that Mr. Parks had not exhausted his tribal court remedies. So I think we’ve learned something from the opinion and that is positive in the sense that litigants before tribal courts, need to avail themselves of all remedies and appeals before the tribal courts before they go to state courts.

When you say that this is a narrow decision, are you saying that in your mind it’s not settled law then that the tribal courts have authority beyond their immediate tribal members?

Geraghty: That question was not decided. Which was did the tribal court have jurisdiction over Mr. Parks, a non-member who had never lived or resided in Minto. You can read some things in the court’s opinion but ultimately it did not reach that issue, which is the one the state was weighing in on, when we intervened.

Why is it seen as an important fight for the state to challenge tribal court authority givien the problems in rural Alaska and the need for help in administrating justice in tribal communities. What’s the long range concern about tribal authority that keeps the state arguing against some of these tribal court decisions?

Geraghty:  Well, I think….Mr. Parks case was terminating his parental rights. That’s not in the grand scheme of things probably a public safety issue. We do mean to make progress on that front and we’re not challenging tribal court authority on that front, we’re looking for ways to work with them to improve public safety. The case of Mr. Parks, when you’re dealing with family issues that are under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The issues, like Mr. Parks, they’re citizens of Alaska. They’re guaranteed certain rights under the constitution of our state. And when they go to state court claiming that those rights have been trampled or not observed, they’ve not received due process, yes, I take an interest in those.

Michael Geraghty is Alaska’s Attorney General.

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