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Supreme Court gives tribal courts greater role in child custody cases

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tribal courts were given more leeway in resolving domestic matters that involve Native children under two rulings handed down by the state Supreme Court on Friday.

In one unanimous opinion, the court reversed itself on a series of previous rulings to allow a tribal court in the village of Nikolai to decide whether a 3-year-old Native girl should live permenantly with relatives on her mother's side.

The state high court ordered Superior Court Judge Eric T. Sanders to turn the case over to the tribal court unless good cause exists not to do so.

The court also took up for a second time the landmark custody case brought by John Baker of the Native village of Northway. In that 1999 ruling, the state high court found that tribal courts should be be held on par with state courts in deciding Native child custody cases.

Baker had sued in Superior Court to get exclusive custody of his two sons after the Northway Tribal Court granted temporary shared custody with the children's mother, Anita John of Mentasta.

The justices had sent the case back to Superior Court Judge Ralph Beistline and ordered him to examine whether the tribal court followed its own rules in deciding the case.

Beistline determined that Baker did not receive an impartial hearing before the tribal court. But records relating to its proceedings were lost and he noted in his ruling ''the Court will never know what actually transpired that day.''

On Friday the state Supreme Court overturned Beistline's second ruling, finding that state courts should give more deference to tribal court proceedings when they review them.

As in state court, Baker should convince the court that the proceedings were unfair, and there wasn't enough information on the case to do that, the court wrote.

Chief Justice Dana Fabe wrote in her opinion on Friday that courts should ''strive to respect the cultural differences that influence tribal jurispurdence, as well as recognize the practical limits experienced by smaller court systems.''

The state supreme court noted that the temporary order issued by the Northway Tribal Court had expired and that court should determine a permanent custody order for the two boys.

The rulings serve to grant a stronger foothold for such courts among the 229 Native tribes in Alaska, attorneys said.

''It really says to the Alaskan public that tribes in Alaska have a valid place in the jurisprudence and government service of Alaska,'' said Harold ''Buddy'' Brown, general counsel of the Tanana Chief's Conference.

The conference brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Village of Nikolai.



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