FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that tribes share jurisdiction with the state in most child custody issues, providing the second major victory for tribal sovereignty advocates in the past five months.
The state’s highest court ruled Friday that 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.
The village of Tanana sued the state for refusing to recognize the tribal authority to issue adoptions. Tanana was joined by five other villages and tribal organizations.
The Alaska Supreme Court decision affirms most of a 2007 Superior Court ruling, which rejected an advisory opinion by former Attorney General Gregg Renkes that Alaska state courts have “exclusive jurisdiction over child custody proceedings involving Alaska Native children” in almost all cases. The state has held that position since it was issued by Renkes in 2004.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s office is still reviewing last week’s Alaska Supreme Court decision and wasn’t ready to comment on Monday, said spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
It’s the second recent move by a higher court to solidify the sovereignty rights of Alaska Native tribes, said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage.
“It was a nice one-two punch for us,” Kendall-Miller said.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal of 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.
Kendall-Miller said the disagreement about tribal jurisdiction created difficulties when children in disputed custody cases needed health care, enrolled for school or applied for social services. She expects the Alaska Supreme Court ruling will spur more cooperation between tribes and state officials.
“It created very real, practical problems on the ground,” she said. “It was something that needed to be addressed.”
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.
The 39-page court ruling stated that a “lack of specific facts precludes us from defining the extent of any individual Alaska Native tribe’s inherent sovereign jurisdiction to initiate ‘child custody proceedings’ or the standards for determining which judgments would be entitled to full faith and credit by the state.”
Because of that wording, there might still be some dispute between the two sides about how rigid the Alaska Supreme Court ruling should be considered.
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.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.