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Supreme Court affirms tribal court's authority in case of man convicted of beating girlfriend

Alex DeMarban

In a decision with important implications for tribal powers in Alaska, the state Supreme Court on Friday rejected a case in which the Parnell administration had challenged the authority of a tribal court in order to protect the constitutional rights of a man who had brutally assaulted and kidnapped his girlfriend.   

The high court's decision confirms that the state must respect tribal courts' rulings in child custody cases just as it does other state courts elsewhere, which is what federal law requires, said Erin Dougherty, a staff attorney with the Native Americans Rights Fund in Alaska, which argued against the state.   

At the heart of the case was whether Edward Parks and Bessie Stearman could regain custody of their daughter. It had become a battle of legal jurisdiction -- whether the tribal court in the Interior village of Minto had the right under the Indian Child Welfare Act to determine who took custody of the girl -- because the Native father was not a member of the tribe.  

The tribal court issued an emergency decision taking legal custody of the girl in 2008, when she was an infant. The mother, who has a history of substance abuse and arrests, was a member of the Minto tribe. She had asked a cousin to care for the child while she went to jail for violating probation.

The court gave physical custody of the child to the cousin and his wife. 

Parks, a member of the Stevens Village tribe in the Interior, also had troubles with the law. In 2008, shortly after the child was born, he was jailed on an assault charge for breaking Stearman’s finger. Also in 2011, Parks kidnapped and assaulted Stearman so violently he broke three of her ribs and collapsed one of her lungs, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. In early 2012, a Fairbanks grand jury handed up a seven-count indictment against Parks that included two kidnapping charges. 

The Minto tribal court in 2009 terminated Parks’ and Stearman’s parental rights.  

Parks sued in state and federal district court in Alaska to undo the tribal court’s decision.

The federal court dismissed the case. But the state Superior Court ruled that the tribal court had violated Parks’ due-process rights because it did not allow his attorney to directly address the tribal court. It also questioned whether the Minto court had jurisdiction over a non-Minto tribal parent.  

The state, questioning the tribe’s jurisdiction over Parks, intervened on his behalf. If the state had won, that would have voided the tribal court’s order declaring the parents unfit. Attorney General Michael Geraghty has previously said the state intervened to protect Parks’ constitutional rights, not to return his child to him.  

The state argued that the proper venue for the case was in state court in Fairbanks, not before the elders of the Minto court.

But the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday affirmed that Alaska courts must give full faith and credit to the Minto tribal court’s decision. Full faith and credit “entails a high degree of respect for tribal courts,” the Supreme Court said in its summary.  

The Supreme Court rejected the state’s arguments over jurisdiction, the NARF statement said. It was also notable because it said litigants must use tribal appellant courts before challenging tribal court decisions in federal or state courts, the NARF statement said.

Dougherty, with NARF, said the court’s opinion aligned with state and federal law and was “a direct rebuke of the state of Alaska’s arguments, which sought to treat the decisions of tribal courts differently simply because they are tribes. These arguments have no foundation in federal law and do a great disservice to the relationships between tribes and the state of Alaska.”

Mary Lundquist, senior assistant attorney general, said the takeaway of the decision is that someone who finds himself or herself in a case before a tribal court -- and that could be anyone -- must exhaust remedies handed down by the court before attempting to sue in state or federal court.  

After the tribal court reached its decision, Parks had the right to appeal to the tribal appeals court, Lundquist said. “He did not do that, and that’s what he should have done,” she said.  

The state’s intervention, she added, addressed only the tribal court’s jurisdiction.  

“That was our interest, in trying to get the Supreme Court to issue some guidance on the bounds of tribal jurisdiction,” she said. “It was never about the particular qualities of the parents or the particularities of any child protection hearing they may have had.”

The statement from NARF called on the state to stop opposing tribal courts:

“In this case, the Native Village of Minto did what it and the 228 other Tribes in Alaska have done since time immemorial -- protect and care for their member children in times of need. The Native American Rights Fund calls on Gov. Sean Parnell and Attorney General Geraghty to cease the State’s repeated efforts to oppose tribal courts and instead, work with tribes to better protect all of Alaska’s children.”

An attempt to reach Geraghty was directed to Lundquist.