Alaska Supreme Court affirms tribal child support case

The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision Friday, recognizing the authority of a Juneau-based tribal government to issue child support orders.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg first ruled in favor of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s Tribal Court in October 2011 to issue child support orders that must be reinforced by the State’s Child Support Services Division (CSSD).

Previously, CSSD did not recognize tribal court support orders or provide interstate support services.

Pallenberg said in his earlier decision that child support was an essential element to “ensuring that children are fed, clothed, and sheltered. The future of a tribe — like that of any society — requires no less.”

Ignoring the tribal courts’ right to enforce child support might also deter parents from bringing disputes to the tribal courts because they would not be able to decide all the issues, Pallenberg added.

State Supreme Court Justice Daniel E. Winfree wrote in the court’s opinion that the tribe’s already existing right to rule on custody matters supports the high court’s decision that the tribe could also handle child support disputes.

Winfree wrote that the State’s concern was not for non-tribe members who might be forced to answer to a tribal court, but for its own budget.

“(The State) simply did not want to have to enforce any of the Tribe’s child support orders — and as a result of the litigation the State now will, as a general matter, have to enforce the Tribe’s child support orders,” Winfree wrote.

Central Council’s Tribal Child Support Unit was first initiated in 2004 and received federal funding as Alaska’s first tribal child support program in 2007. Since then, tribal courts have decided more than 100 support cases.

In the past, CSSD has not fully cooperated with Central Council in garnishing a parent’s IRS tax refunds, Alaska unemployment insurance benefits or Permanent Fund Dividends in certain cases. Still, the two entities have worked together, with CSSD having referred more than 700 child support cases to the tribal unit for enforcement, according to facts presented to the high court. CCSD has also enforced cases the unit referred to the State, but only when an order was first issued by a state court — not a tribal one.

“This is a very important court ruling for not only our children and families, but for tribal sovereignty,” Central Council President Richard Peterson said in a statement Friday. “The Tribe and the State’s Child Support Services Division have developed a successful working relationship and we will continue to work in a spirit of cooperation to ensure our children receive the support they need.”

This decision further builds upon growing tribal sovereignty, adding to the State of Alaska and Central Council agreement reached earlier this month that allowed the later to take over child welfare cases of tribal children.

Although this decision puts some matters to rest, others still remain uncertain. Both the superior and high courts agreed that personal jurisdiction — involvement of non-tribe members in child support matters — must still be decided on a case-by-case basis so as not to violate due process.

“Who in this case represents the legal interests of non-(tribal) member parents of tribal children?” Winfree asked in the opinion. “No one. I do not find this particularly satisfying for a court that prides itself on procedural fairness.”

The matter will only be solved, the justice declared, when an actual dispute between a tribal and non-tribal parent presents itself.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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