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Alaska opinion backs away from tribal courts

Tribal leaders in Alaska are upset over a new attorney general opinion that directs state social workers to assume jurisdiction over child welfare cases.

Attorney general Gregg Renkes said the state has a "duty" to enforce state law over Native children even under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The opinion rescinds a policy issued under former governor Tony Knowles, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, that encouraged cooperation with tribal courts.

Instead, state workers are to assume that tribes do not have jurisdiction in child welfare cases. The opinion sets out the standard as follows:

"In the absence of court rules setting out the procedure for registration, confirmation, and enforcement of tribal court orders under ICWA, the state will defer to such tribal court orders only if the tribe exercised jurisdiction in a manner consistent with ICWA, the tribe afforded due process to the litigants in the tribal court (including the opportunity to contest jurisdiction), and the tribal court otherwise acted in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution and the other conditions set out above," Renkes wrote.

Four tribes have filed suit in state court challenging the opinion. The Alaska Federation of Natives, at its annual conference that just ended, unanimously adopted a resolution to take "whatever means necessary, including litigation" to overturn the opinion.

Get the Story:
Tribal court policy shift stirs debate (The Anchorage Daily News 10/30)
Caution shown at AFN meeting (The Anchorage Daily News 10/31)

Get the Opinion:
Jurisdiction of State and Tribal Courts (October 1, 2004)

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