FAIRBANKS - Alaska Supreme Court Judge Alexander Bryner upheld a 2001 state Superior Court decision affirming the state's right to determine child support in a custody battle involving the Native village of Northway.
The written ruling in John v. Baker, issued by Bryner on Dec. 16, is the latest decision in the ongoing tribal sovereignty issue over the jurisdiction of tribal courts.
The state has long argued that the rights of tribes to govern their members was limited in scope. Bryner's decision, while giving some support to the state's view, did not completely resolve the issue.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that the Native village of Northway, as a federally recognized tribe, had jurisdiction over child custody cases. That ruling cleared the way for the resolution by the tribal court of a custody case between John Baker and his ex-wife, Anita Adams.
Baker filed a lawsuit in state court claiming the tribal court did not have jurisdiction in custody disputes. The state held that tribal courts in Alaska have jurisdiction to adjudicate child custody disputes involving tribal members.
The 1999 decision, though, left unresolved the issue of whether tribal courts could award financial child support. Adams argued that child support should be set by the tribal court, said her attorney Andrew Harrington.
The state argued that Alaska Native villages did not have jurisdiction over how much child support the primary caregiver should receive.
A state Superior Court judge ruled in 2001 that the Northway tribal court was vague when it issued an order of support in the case, and therefore jurisdiction reverted to the state Child Support Enforcement Division.
In 1995, the Northway tribal court issued a decision requiring that "each parent help each other financially," further instructing both parents not to "hit the other with child support."
The Superior Court ruled that the statements did not constitute a court order and that the state's determination of child support was valid. Bryner agreed with the ruling.
"Northway's order does not state a specific dollar amount and provides no criteria by which to judge whether the parties are fulfilling their obligations," Bryner wrote in the decision.
The ruling stopped short of concluding that tribal courts in general lack jurisdiction over child support issues.
"The Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court decision, saying in this case it was correct to give jurisdiction over support to the state," Harrington said. "But it was careful not to make any general statements over whether tribal courts have jurisdiction over child support issues."
The issue of whether tribal courts can set child support in other cases remains to be resolved.
"At some point, the Alaska Supreme Court will have to address the bigger issue of whether Alaska tribal courts' determination of child support should be recognized by the state," Harrington said.
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