Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Native American Law
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A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a father’s parental rights to his two children after finding them children in need of aid because of their father’s domestic violence and aggressive behavior. The children were Indian children under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Therefore the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was required to make active efforts to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the family. At the termination trial, the superior court found clear and convincing evidence that OCS made active efforts but that these efforts proved unsuccessful. The father appealed, arguing only that the superior court’s active efforts finding was made in error. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the termination order. View "Ronald H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of three Indian children after reports of substance abuse and domestic violence in their mother’s home. For two years OCS was unable to contact the children’s father, who also struggled with substance abuse issues. Once OCS did contact the father, both he and the mother consented to temporarily place the children with a guardian. OCS then reduced its efforts to reunify the children with their father. Then the children’s mother died. The father was incarcerated for several months; he completed classes and substance abuse treatment. After he was released, he maintained his sobriety and began limited contact with OCS and with his children. Approximately four years after taking custody of the children, OCS moved to terminate the father’s parental rights. After the superior court terminated his rights, the father appealed, arguing OCS failed to make active efforts to reunify him with his children as required by ICWA. To this the Alaska Supreme Court concurred, and reversed the termination of his parental rights. View "C.J. (Father) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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The State of Alaska claimed the right under Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477) to clear land and permit the use of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites within an alleged 100-foot right of way centered on a road on land belonging to an Alaska Native corporation, Ahtna, Inc. Ahtna sued, arguing that its prior aboriginal title prevented the federal government from conveying a right of way to the State or, alternatively, if the right of way existed, that construction of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites exceeded its scope. After years of litigation and motion practice the superior court issued two partial summary judgment orders: (1) holding as a matter of law that any preexisting aboriginal title did not disturb the State’s right of way over the land; and (2) holding as a matter of law that the right of way was limited to ingress and egress. To these orders, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err, therefore affirming both grants of partial summary judgment. View "Ahtna, Inc. v. Alaska, Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, et al." on Justia Law

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An Alaska Native teenage minor affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue (Tribe) was taken into custody by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and placed at a residential treatment facility in Utah. She requested a placement review hearing after being injured by a facility staff member. At the time of the hearing, the minor’s mother wanted to regain custody. At the hearing the superior court had to make removal findings under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), as well as findings authorizing continued placement in a residential treatment facility under Alaska law. At the hearing, the minor’s Utah therapist testified as a mental health professional. The minor, as well as her parents and the Tribe, objected to the witness being qualified as an ICWA expert, but the superior court allowed it. The minor argued the superior court erred in determining that the witness was qualified as an expert for the purposes of ICWA. Because the superior court correctly determined that knowledge of the Indian child’s tribe was unnecessary in this situation when it relied on the expert’s testimony for its ICWA findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of April S." on Justia Law

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At issue in consolidated appeals before the Alaska Supreme Court were the custody proceedings involving the same child before two courts of independent sovereignty: the State of Alaska and the Native Village of Barrow (NVB). A child custody case was initiated in the Utqiagvik superior court. Thereafter, NVB, through its tribal court, took custody of the child in a tribal child in need of aid (CINA) case. In 2016 the superior court ultimately denied the mother’s state court motion to modify custody. NVB sought to intervene in the state custody case, but the superior court denied its motion. The mother appealed the superior court’s denial of her motion to modify custody; NVB appealed the order denying its motion to intervene. The Alaska Supreme Court determined that under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a superior court receiving a tribal court order to determine whether the order was issued in an ICWA-defined child custody proceeding and, if it was, was mandated to follow ICWA section 1911(d)’s full faith and credit mandate. The superior court erred in ruling that the NVB tribal court lacked jurisdiction without following the procedures underlying the process for giving full faith and credit to a tribal court order. View "Native Village of Barrow v. Williams" on Justia Law

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In these separate but consolidated appeals, the issue common to both cases presented to the Alaska Supreme Court for review centered on whether new federal regulations materially changed the qualifications required of an expert testifying in a child in need of aid (CINA) case involving children subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). To support the termination of parental rights, ICWA required the “testimony of qualified expert witnesses . . . that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.” Under the new federal regulations, experts who formerly could be presumptively qualified, based on their ability to testify about prevailing cultural and social standards in the child’s tribe, for example, had to also be qualified to testify about the “causal relationship between the particular conditions in the home and the likelihood that continued custody of the child will result in serious emotional or physical damage to the particular child who is the subject of the child-custody proceeding.” The Supreme Court concluded the federal regulations had materially changed an expert’s qualifications, and in these two cases, the challenged expert witnesses failed to satisfy this higher standard imposed by controlling federal law. For this reason the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the orders terminating the parents’ parental rights and remanded for further proceedings. View "L.B. (Mother) v Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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Steve H. and Lucy A. were the parents of Donald, an Indian child2 born in April 2013. By the time Donald was born, Steve and Lucy were no longer in a relationship and Steve no longer lived in Anchorage. Donald lived with Lucy until the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) assumed emergency custody of him due to alcohol-related neglect shortly after he was born. Although Steve knew that Lucy had substance abuse problems, he left Donald in her care. When OCS took emergency custody of Donald in June 2013, Steve was “unreachable.” Donald was placed in a foster home. Steve appealed the superior court’s decision terminating his parental rights. He argued the superior court clearly erred in finding that he abandoned his son under the Child in Need of Aid (CINA) statutes. He also argued there was insufficient evidence to support termination, claiming that the record did not support the superior court’s findings that returning his son to his care would risk emotional or physical harm and that termination was in his son’s best interests. Because the superior court did not clearly err in making these findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Steve H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a three-month-old child after he was found outside alone on a cold winter day. The child’s mother had an alcohol abuse problem and had failed repeated attempts at treatment. The father also had problems with alcohol abuse, never completing treatment, and spending much of the relevant time period in jail or on probation. The mother and father had a second child while OCS’s case was pending, and the agency took custody of that child as too. OCS then petitioned to terminate parental rights to both children. The superior court granted OCS’s petition following trial. The parents appealed: the father argued the superior court erred when it found OCS’s proposed expert witness, an experienced attorney and guardian ad litem, qualified to testify about whether the children would likely suffer emotional or physical harm if returned to their parents’ care. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the record did not support a conclusion that the witness met the heightened standard for expert testimony under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); for that reason the Court reversed the termination order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Eva H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Bill and Clara are the parents of Noah and Olwen, ages 12 and 5 at the time of the termination trial. Noah and Olwen were Indian children within the meaning of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on their affiliation with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (theTribe). Bill and Clara had a lengthy history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Noah and Olwen suffered primarily through neglect and mental injury from exposure to their parents’ conduct. While Bill’s and Clara’s violence was typically directed at each other or other family members, there were reports of alleged physical abuse of Noah. The superior court terminated the parents' rights to their children. The parents appealed, arguing the superior court erred in finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that OCS made active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. Because the Alaska Supreme Court determined there was insufficient evidence to support an active efforts finding under a clear and convincing evidence standard, it reversed the superior court’s active efforts finding, vacated the termination order, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Bill S. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law