Judge says State must honor child support orders from Tribe

Southeast tribal officials are welcoming a decision by a state judge that’s based on their inherent right of self-governance. The latest opinion specifies that their jurisdiction includes the issuance of child support orders that the State of Alaska has, so far, refused to honor.

“I was just delighted,” said attorney Holly Handler who argued the case for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. CCTHITA is the sovereign tribal government for over 27,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide.

“The Tribe has been waiting for sometime to get a decision in this case,” said Handler.

Tribal court orders specifying the garnishment of income tax refunds, unemployment benefits, and Permanent Fund Dividends were ignored by the State of Alaska. Tribal courts had issued the orders for either child support, or for reimbursement of benefits paid out by the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, the tribe’s version of the Alaska Temporary Assistance Program.

CCTHITA filed the suit in January 2010. Oral arguments were held last April. Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg of Juneau issued the 16-page opinion on Tuesday, October 25 which referred to the recent State v. Native Village of Tanana opinion and the pivotal John v. Baker opinion issued by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1999. Justices ruled then that tribes had the sovereign authority to adjudicate custody of tribal children in their own courts, but they did not specifically touch on the issue of child support. Judge Pallenberg, however, writes that child custody and support are naturally intertwined. In State courts, for example, both issues are considered at the same time. Pallenberg considers monetary support as an integral part of any custody determination and a paramount duty that any parent has to their children.

“It’s not charting any strange and bizarre territory,” said Handler. “It’s really a direct application of John v. Baker to child support cases.”

David Voluck, chief judge for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and family law magistrate for the CCTHITA, calls it a strong and solid opinion that’s based on centuries of precedent, principles, and legal reasoning of federal Indian law.

“Every other facet of family law that impacts a child — it is agreed — can fall under the inherent sovereighty of a tribal court,” said Voluck. “So it really makes no sense to argue that the financial support (or) the child support, that’s different.”

Voluck says he hears as many as thirty cases a month. He says he can recall at least ten cases that he’s heard where a poor working relationship between the tribe and the State has affected support for the family.

Attorneys who defended the State did not respond to inquiries seeking comment. But — among their claims outlined in briefing documents — the Central Council has no jurisdiction under Alaska’s version of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, the law that allows recognition of support orders from different states.

Judge Pallenberg’s opinion notes an amendment by the Legislature two years ago that stemmed from federal welfare reform legislation; the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act included a ‘tribe’ as part of the definition of a ‘state.’

Jessie Archibald, a staff attorney for the Tribal Child Support Unit, says the tribe’s child support order should be processed just as any state child support case is processed. The Tribal Child Support Unit has handled about 500 cases since its inception four years ago.

“Initially, there was just a small number of cases,” said Archibald. “As we’ve grown, there are more and more cases.”

State of Alaska Child Support Division Director John Mallonee says they are still reviewing the opinion. He declined to immediately comment on it or any potential impacts on his division’s operations. He referred further questions to the State Department of Revenue’s Commissioner’s office.

Additional related claims still must be decided in the case before a final judgment is issued. Since state attorneys did not respond for comment, it’s unknown whether they plan to eventually appeal.

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