Compass: State must defend due process rights of all citizens

By MICHAEL GERAGHTYSeptember 14, 2013 

In 1965, Ernesto Miranda was found guilty of kidnapping and raping a young girl. Miranda's attorneys challenged his arrest and the police interrogation that led to his confession. The U.S. Supreme Court held that because the police failed to tell Miranda about his basic constitutional rights when they arrested him, they violated his "due process" rights. That landmark case established what we now know as our Miranda rights, the basic constitutional protections that all of us (not just Miranda) expect as United States citizens.

Miranda's conviction was reversed as a result of the ruling but he was later convicted of his crimes on the basis of other evidence besides his confession. But the point is that important due process cases like Miranda often involve people who have committed horrific crimes because our Constitution provides that even a person who seems clearly guilty must be treated fairly.

The Simmonds v. Parks petition before the Alaska Supreme Court is also a due process case. Although people may agree with the Minto court's result -- termination of Mr. Parks' parental rights to his child -- they should not disregard the constitutional violations that occurred along the way.

The Simmonds v. Parks petition is not about whether Parks is a bad parent, or even whether he should have custody of the child. (The child's placement is a separate issue in a lower court case the state is not involved in). The Alaska Supreme Court petition is about whether a citizen of Alaska had a right to have his case considered by a state court. Even though Mr. Parks is not a member of the Minto tribe and has never lived in Minto, the Minto tribe claimed jurisdiction over Mr. Parks and permanently ended his parental connection to his child. The tribal court applied unwritten law and would not let Mr. Parks have an attorney speak for him in the tribal termination hearing.

The state intervened at the Alaska Supreme Court level because in our view, citizens should not forfeit their basic constitutional rights when they have a child with a tribal member. It is unfair to end a parent's connection to his child if that parent has no ability to vote for the governing tribal council, to have a say in the laws being applied against him, or to have a lawyer speak on his behalf.

The state did not intervene on behalf of Mr. Parks but rather on its own behalf because the law that will be established by the court will apply to all Alaska citizens who may in the future find themselves defending their rights as parents. The state did not intervene on Parks' behalf and has never said that it disagrees with the tribe's decision to terminate his rights. Even if the Supreme Court rules against the tribe, it does not mean that Parks will get his child back. It only means that the state Superior Court will continue to determine the child's placement.

The state recognizes the tribes' inherent sovereignty over their own members and currently collaborates with the tribes on issues affecting Alaska children, including enforcement of tribal orders in those cases where the tribe's jurisdiction is not questioned. Gov. Parnell has made monumental efforts to bring a law enforcement presence to every community that wants it and to direct millions in funding to rural public safety initiatives. It is also worth emphasizing that the state also took Parks to trial and obtained a conviction for the brutal crimes he committed against his child's mother.

But this case asks the Alaska Supreme Court to clarify whether a nonmember has a right to have his case heard in state court, and -- if he is in tribal court -- whether that tribal court must afford him minimum due process before terminating his parental rights. The state makes no apology for standing up for the constitutional due process rights of all Alaskans as the Alaska Supreme Court decides these issues.

Michael Geraghty is Alaska's attorney general.

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