Friday’s decision by the Alaska Supreme Court that tribal courts have jurisdiction in child custody cases when one of the parents does not belong to the tribe is a landmark in the hotly contested issue of tribal sovereignty. In the case, parents Edward Parks and Bessie Stearman sought to overturn the Minto Tribal Court’s ruling that their child should be placed in foster care. The tribal court had held that the children were better off out of Parks and Stearman’s custody because of a history of domestic violence in the home.
The state joined the case on the side of Parks and Stearman, arguing the state superior court and not tribal courts had jurisdiction since Parks was from Stevens Village and not Minto. But the state Supreme Court ruled that since both Stearman and her child were registered as members of the Minto tribe, that court did indeed have authority to rule in the case. The decision is a big win for those seeking more tribal autonomy in justice issues, and goes farther in granting authority to tribal courts than at any previous point in the state’s history.
The decision follows a scathing report last year from the federal Indian Law and Order Commission, which slammed the state justice system for being too centralized and unresponsive to rural communities. The commission wrote that the state’s “centralized administration falls short of local needs.”
“The status quo in Alaska tends to marginalize and frequently ignores the potential of tribally based justice systems, intertribal institutions, and organizations to provide more cost-effective and responsive alternatives to prevent crime and keep all Alaskans safer,” the commission wrote in their report. “If given an opportunity to work, Tribal approaches can be reasonably expected to make all Alaskans safer — and at less cost.
Because of the state Supreme Court’s decision Friday, we will now have an opportunity to see if the commission is correct in its assertions. Child custody is an issue close to the heart of all parents, and is a fundamental — and frequently contested — legal issue in all communities, Native and non-Native alike. According to the state Attorney General’s office, their interpretation of the decision is that state courts may yet have authority to intervene in child custody cases — but not until the families have exhausted the remedies of the tribal courts.
Still, that’s a big leap in responsibility, and tribal courts now have more stature. They are also surely aware that along with that new power comes a tremendous burden of responsibility — proving that they can do better than the state at improving outcomes in custody cases. Should that happen, the state may well consider granting more responsibility to handle their affairs — but if not, jurisdiction in custody cases as well as the other recommendations of the Indian Law and Order Commission would be in danger of being resigned to dusty shelves, as with so many other federal reports.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,