Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Native American Law
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The Supreme Court of the State of Montana was tasked with determining whether the Municipal Court had sufficient evidence to enter a permanent order of protection against the appellant, Alda Bighorn. Bighorn was prohibited from having contact with her grandchild, L.D.F.S, unless supervised, due to allegations made by L.D.F.S's mother, Camille Fritzler. Fritzler alleged that Bighorn had taken L.D.F.S to a family gathering while intoxicated and seeking narcotics, and was planning to enroll L.D.F.S with a Native tribe to gain custody over her. These allegations were not corroborated by any witness testimony or other evidence, but the Municipal Court granted a permanent order of protection against Bighorn. Bighorn appealed this decision, and the District Court affirmed the Municipal Court's ruling.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana reversed the lower courts' decisions, ruling that the Municipal Court had abused its discretion by granting the permanent order of protection without any substantial, credible evidence supporting Fritzler's allegations. The Supreme Court noted that hearsay allegations may be sufficient to support issuing a temporary order of protection, but not a permanent one. Furthermore, the court deemed it improper for the lower court to issue a visitation order for a grandparent in a protection order proceeding, stating that grandparent visitation should be established by filing a petition under the relevant statute. The case was remanded to the Municipal Court to vacate and rescind the permanent order of protection against Bighorn. View "Fritzler v. Bighorn" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of Alaska ruled on the legal process applying to the Office of Children's Services (OCS) when it seeks to admit a child in its custody to a hospital for psychiatric care. The case centered on a minor named Mira J., a member of the Native Village of Kwinhagak (the Tribe), who was placed in OCS custody and hospitalized for 46 days for psychiatric treatment without a hearing to determine if the hospitalization was justified.The Tribe argued that her hospitalization should have been governed by the civil commitment statutes or, alternatively, that the constitution did not permit OCS to hospitalize a child for such a long time without a court hearing to determine whether the hospitalization was justified. The court rejected the Tribe's statutory argument but agreed that Mira's due process rights under the Alaska Constitution were violated.The court held that while OCS was not required to follow the civil commitment statutes when admitting Mira to either hospital, due process required OCS to promptly notify parties to the child in need of aid (CINA) case when admitting a child to the hospital for psychiatric care. Further, due process required the court to hold a hearing as soon as reasonably possible to determine whether the hospitalization was justified. The court held that the 46-day wait between Mira's first admission to the hospital and the hearing was too long to satisfy due process, and thus reversed the lower court's order authorizing Mira's continued hospitalization. View "Native Village of Kwinhagak v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the conviction of Montelito Simpkins for sexually abusing a minor and engaging in abusive sexual contact in Indian country. The government charged Simpkins under the Indian Country Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1152, which only applies if either the victim or the defendant, but not both, is an Indian. In this case, Simpkins argued that the government provided insufficient evidence to prove that he was not an Indian, an essential element required for a conviction under the Act. The court clarified that a sufficiency challenge must be assessed against the legal elements of the crime, not against the elements listed in the jury instructions. The government conceded it had offered no evidence of Simpkins’s non-Indian status at trial. Therefore, the court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prove Simpkins’s non-Indian status, reversed his convictions, and remanded the case to the district court to enter a judgment of acquittal. View "United States v. Simpkins" on Justia Law

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In the juvenile dependency case involving P.H., Jr., the Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District Division Five affirmed the jurisdiction and disposition orders of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. This case revolved around the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and whether the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (the Department) and the juvenile court were obligated to formally notify certain tribes of the proceedings.The minor, P.H., Jr., lived with his parents, P.H. (Father) and A.R. (Mother), when the Department filed a juvenile dependency petition alleging that the minor was at substantial risk due to physical abuse by the mother, the father's failure to protect the minor, and unsanitary living conditions. The parents filed ICWA-020 Parental Notification of Indian Status forms indicating possible affiliation with federally recognized Indian tribes.The appellate court held that no formal ICWA notice was required in this case because none of the statements by the minor’s parents or other family members provided a reason to know he was an Indian child for purposes of the relevant statutes. The ICWA and related California law define an "Indian child" as a child who is either a member of an Indian tribe or is eligible for membership in an Indian tribe and is the biological child of a member of an Indian tribe. The court found that at most, the statements by the parents and other family members suggested that the minor might have some Indian ancestry, but tribal ancestry alone is not sufficient to trigger the formal notice requirement. The court affirmed the lower court's jurisdiction and disposition orders. View "In re P.H." on Justia Law

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The case involves the State of Nebraska's appeal against a juvenile court's order transferring jurisdiction of a child welfare case involving five Native American children to the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court. The case centered on the interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act (NICWA), both of which aim to protect the best interests of Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the juvenile court's order transferring the cases was conditional and not final, hence not appealable. The court found that the order was dependent on the tribal court's subsequent acceptance or declination of the transfer. If the tribal court declined the transfer, the cases would remain under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. The court also noted that under NICWA, the transfer of a case from the juvenile court to a tribal court is subject to the tribal court's declination. Therefore, the court affirmed the Nebraska Court of Appeals' dismissal of the State's appeals due to the lack of a final, appealable order. View "In re Interest of Ricardo T." on Justia Law

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In a case heard by the Court of Appeal of the State of California, First Appellate District, Division Four, the appellant, a mother (La.B.), challenged the juvenile court's decision to terminate her parental rights. The mother claimed the court failed to adequately inquire into her child's (L.B.'s) potential Native American ancestry as required by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Despite the mother's indication on a form that she might be a member of a federally recognized tribe of unknown name and location, no extended family members were asked about the child's potential Native American ancestry.The appellate court agreed with the mother's contention, finding the inquiry into the child's ancestry inadequate and thus, an abuse of discretion. The court noted that the inquiry was legally required to include extended family members, regardless of how the child was initially removed from their home. The trial court had failed to adhere to this requirement despite the availability of several family members who could have provided relevant information.The appellate court conditionally reversed the judgement and instructed the juvenile court to order the Social Services Agency to complete the initial ICWA inquiry, including inquiries required under section 224.2, subdivision (b). Depending on the results of the inquiry, the court should proceed in accordance with ICWA and related California law. If no evidence of the child's Native American heritage is found, the juvenile court should immediately reinstate the judgement. View "In re L.B." on Justia Law

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In this case, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska challenged the State of Alaska's management of a commercial fishery, arguing that it harmed a subsistence fishery. The tribe argued that the state violated the subsistence priority statute and the common use and sustained yield clauses in the Alaska Constitution. The tribe also claimed that the state was misinterpreting a regulation controlling the fishery and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from managing the fishery according to that interpretation during the upcoming season. The superior court denied the preliminary injunction.The tribe eventually won on its statutory and regulatory claim, but the superior court denied its constitutional claim and its request for attorney’s fees. The tribe appealed to the Supreme Court of Alaska.The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed the superior court’s decisions. It held that the hard look doctrine, requiring agencies to consider all relevant information, already existed and there was no need to create a constitutional requirement not in the plain language of Article VIII, Section 4 of the Alaska Constitution. The court also declined to review the tribe’s motion for a preliminary injunction under the public interest exception, as the issue was moot and did not justify application of the public interest exception. Lastly, the court held that the superior court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award attorney’s fees as the tribe had not shown that the superior court's decision was arbitrary, capricious, manifestly unreasonable, or stemmed from an improper motive. View "Sitka Tribe of Alaska v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska dealt with an appeal against the termination of parental rights of two parents, Elena F. and Ronan F., by the State of Alaska, Department of Family & Community Services, Office of Children’s Services. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had removed the two Indian children from their parents' home due to reported domestic violence and later terminated both parents' rights after two years. The parents appealed, arguing that OCS failed to make active efforts to reunify the family.The court found that the OCS made active efforts to reunify Elena with her children even in light of her serious mental illness, substance abuse, and her increasingly violent threats and behavior. As such, the court affirmed the termination of Elena's parental rights.However, the court found that the OCS did not make active efforts to reunify Ronan with his children. The court noted that there was no evidence that two out of three caseworkers assigned to Ronan made any efforts toward his reunification with his children. Therefore, the court reversed the termination of Ronan's parental rights. View "Ronan F. v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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In this case involving the State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services (OCS), the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska ruled on an appeal regarding the termination of parental rights of parents Allie P. and Jimmy E. The crux of the case revolved around the application of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which provides specific protections for Indian children and their tribes in child custody proceedings.Allie P. and Jimmy E. had two children together and Allie had two older children from a previous relationship. All four children were removed from Allie’s custody due to her history of substance abuse. Jimmy E. claimed Alaska Native heritage and argued that his children should be considered Indian children under ICWA.The Supreme Court held that Jimmy did provide a sufficient reason to know that the two youngest children are Indian children and that OCS did not conduct a sufficient inquiry. Thus, the court vacated the termination of Jimmy’s and Allie’s parental rights as to the two youngest children and remanded for further proceedings.However, the court rejected Allie's additional challenges and affirmed the termination of her parental rights with respect to her two older children. The court found that Allie had not remedied the behavior causing her children to be in need of aid, OCS made reasonable efforts to reunite the family, and termination was in the children's best interests. View "Jimmy E. v. State of Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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In a case involving the State of Alaska's Office of Children’s Services (OCS), an adult relative, Taryn M., appealed the denial of her request to have custody of an Indian child, Marcy P., who was in the custody of OCS. Marcy P. had a severe congenital disease and required a bone marrow transplant. The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the decision of the lower court, finding that OCS had demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that Taryn M. was an unsuitable caretaker for Marcy P. The court established that the burden of proof was on OCS to show that a preferred placement under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was unsuitable. The evidence presented showed that Taryn M. was unwilling to abide by Marcy’s treatment plans, with instances including not following medical advice for treating fevers and not returning Marcy after a visit as planned. The court concluded that Taryn M.'s actions demonstrated clear and convincing evidence that she was an unsuitable caretaker. View "Taryn M. v. State of Alaska, Department of Family & Community Services" on Justia Law