Rights of tribal courts debated at hearing

Attorney general defends state's decision to appeal to high court

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Legislators used Attorney General Dan Sullivan's confirmation hearing Wednesday to question the Parnell administration's actions on a ground-breaking child welfare case concerning tribal court rights.

The state lost in lower courts but hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case is between the Kaltag Village Council, which operates a tribal court, and the state's Department of Health and Social Services. The issue is over who takes precedence in a child custody cases, a tribal court or other court systems.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski questioned seeking further review after the state lost in four courts before five judges.

"We think this is an important enough issue, whether a tribal court should have jurisdiction over a non-member over an issue as fundamental as terminating parental rights," Sullivan said.

Sullivan was appointed Attorney General in June of 2009, one of former Gov. Sarah Palin's last official acts before announcing her resignation as governor.

Under state law, Sullivan's appointment expires at the end of the Legislative session if he is not confirmed by the Legislature.

In the state's 50-plus-year history, no member of any governor's cabinet failed to win legislative confirmation until Palin's last attorney general appointment of the controversial Wayne Anthony Ross. His two-week tenure as attorney general before his failed confirmation vote was the state's shortest.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, questioned whether the state's continued fighting of the Kaltag case had disturbed the Native legal community.

"I think they see it as an attack on tribal courts," he said.

Sullivan acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, but said there were important issues on which U.S. Supreme Court guidance is needed. Lower courts around the nation have split widely on the issue, he said.

"We need clarity," he said.

Sullivan said he consulted with Gov. Sean Parnell before petitioning the nation's highest court to take the case.

"We'd never petition the U.S. Supreme Court on a matter lightly," he said.

Sullivan also offered conciliatory words for Kaltag on the issue.

"The Tribal Court was trying to do the right things," he said.

Wielechowski, a union lawyer, asked why a D.C. firm was hired for the appeal.

"We have great expertise in Alaska, I don't know why you went outside Alaska to hire this firm," he said.

Sullivan didn't directly answer the question. In the state budget, the Department of Law, which Sullivan heads, requested an extra appropriation of $80,000.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sullivan's nomination, as the House Judiciary Committee did earlier. A date has not been set for the full Legislature to vote on confirmation.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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