Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Validity of Custody Orders Issued by a Tribal Court

    Layla Billie and Kevin Stier had two children. Billie is a Native American part of the Miccosukee tribe in Florida.  Stier is non-Native American.  They were never married and it’s unclear whether they ever lived together.

    Billie initiated custody proceedings in Miccosukee Tribal Court on October 1, 2012.  The Tribal Court accepted jurisdiction and awarded Billie temporary custody and set a hearing for November 5, 2012.  The only notice that Stier received was a mail addressed to his mother’s house.  He appeared at the hearing with an attorney, but his attorney was not allowed to attend the proceedings.  Stier was allowed to attend, but they were largely conducted in the Miccosukee language which he doesn’t understand.  He wasn’t provided an interpreter.  At the end, Stier was given a short synopsis of Billie’s testimony, then the Tribal Court extended Billie’s temporary custody.

    Stier filed a Petition for custody on November 1, 2012 in the Circuit Court of Miami-Dade County, Florida.  In March 2013, Billie filed for permanent custody in the Tribal Court and simultaneously filed a motion in the Circuit Court requesting a dismissal of Stier’s Petition on the grounds that the Circuit Court lacked jurisdiction under the UCCJEA (Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act).  The Circuit Court determined that it had proper jurisdiction because the Tribal Court didn’t substantially comply with the jurisdictional requirements of the UCCJEA.


    Billie appealed the order.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court.  According to the Court of Appeals, the Tribal Court was not in substantial conformity with the UCCJEA for five main reasons, 1) Stier didn’t receive proper notice of the Tribal Court proceedings pursuant to Florida law and hadn’t submitted to jurisdiction of the Tribal Court, 2) Stier didn’t have an opportunity to be heard at the temporary custody hearing; 3) Stier’s attorney wasn’t allowed into the Tribal proceedings; 4) The proceedings in the Tribal Court were conducted in the Miccosukee language, Stier wasn’t given an interpreter; 5) Billie testified in Miccosukee for over 20 minutes, the Tribal Court gave Stier only a two minute summary in English before granting temporary custody to Billie. 

    What I find interesting about this case is that while the Circuit Court doesn’t have to comply with the orders of the Tribal Court, the Tribal Court doesn’t necessarily have to comply with the decision of the Circuit Court or the Court of Appeals.  Presumably, the Tribal Court isn’t within the American court system and they were found to not be in substantial conformity with the UCCJEA. I would suspect that the decisions of the Circuit or Appellate Court are not binding on them and they can still issue rules under their own jurisprudence.  If Billie chooses to disregard the Court of Appeals ruling and to live with the children on Miccosukee land and if additional orders are issued from both courts, I imagine there may be an issue of enforcement in both directions of both sets of orders.

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