State v. Cent. Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, S–14935.

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtFABE, Chief Justice.
Citation371 P.3d 255
PartiesSTATE of Alaska; Patrick S. Galvin, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue; and John Mallonee, in his official capacity as Director of the Alaska Child Support Services Division, Appellants, v. CENTRAL COUNCIL OF TLINGIT AND HAIDA INDIAN TRIBES OF ALASKA, on its own behalf and as parens patriae on behalf of its members, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. S–14935.,S–14935.
Decision Date25 March 2016

Mary Ann Lundquist, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Fairbanks, Stacy K. Steinberg, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellants.

Jessie Archibald, CCTHITA Child Support Unit Attorney, Juneau, and Holly Handler and Sydney Tarzwell, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Juneau, for Appellee.

Erin C. Dougherty and Matthew N. Newman, Native American Rights Fund, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae National Association of Tribal Child Support Directors.

Karen L. Loeffler, United States Attorney, and Richard L. Pomeroy, Assistant United States Attorney, Anchorage, and Ragu–Jara Gregg and Stacy Stoller, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae United States.

Before: FABE, Chief Justice, WINFREE, STOWERS, MAASSEN, and BOLGER, Justices.


, Chief Justice.


A federally recognized Alaska Native tribe has adopted a process for adjudicating the child support obligations of parents whose children are members of the tribe or are eligible for membership, and it operates a federally funded child support enforcement agency. The Tribe sued the State and won a declaratory judgment that its tribal court system has subject matter jurisdiction over child support matters and an injunction requiring the State's child support enforcement agency to recognize the tribal courts' child support orders in the same way it recognizes such orders from other states. Because we agree that tribal courts have inherent subject matter jurisdiction to decide the child support obligations owed to children who are tribal members or are eligible for membership, and that state law thus requires the State's child support enforcement agency to recognize and enforce a tribal court's child support orders, we affirm.

A. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act

The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA)1 governs Alaska's enforcement of child support orders issued by tribunals other than Alaska's state courts. Federal child support enforcement funds are conditioned on a state's passage of UIFSA,2 and as a result every state in the country has enacted identical legislation.3

UIFSA allows parents to register and enforce child support orders issued by the tribunal of another state4 in the same manner as orders issued by Alaska's courts.5 It also allows parties to send the documents required to register another state's support order directly to the Alaska Child Support Services Division (CSSD), the arm of state government charged with enforcing child support orders.6 CSSD enforces these orders through administrative procedures “without initially seeking to register the order.”7 UIFSA also includes procedures for direct enforcement of orders from other tribunals. Income withholding orders can be sent directly to obligors' employers in Alaska without first registering the orders with the state courts or CSSD.8 When an employer receives a facially regular order from another state, the employer must comply and withhold the income as directed, just as if the order had come from an Alaska court.9

Whether the out-of-state child support order is registered with Alaska's courts, enforced by CSSD without court involvement, or sent directly to an employer, an obligor can contest its validity or enforcement.10 The party contesting an order has the burden of proving one of several available defenses, including that “the issuing tribunal lacked personal jurisdiction over the contesting party,” and that “there is a defense under the law of this state to the remedy sought.”11

UIFSA applies to support orders “issued in another state.”12 As originally enacted in 1995, Alaska's version of UIFSA differed from the model version by not including Indian tribes within its definition of “state.”13 In 2008 the State twice requested that the federal Department of Health and Human Services exempt it from the requirement that states enact UIFSA exactly as the model legislation was written. Both requests were denied. In 2009 the State legislature amended AS 25.25.101

to include Indian tribes in its definition of “state.”14 As Alaska's version of UIFSA now reads, “the term ‘state’ includes an Indian nation or tribe.”15

The law amending the statute included the legislature's view that “UIFSA does not determine the authority of an Indian tribe to enter, modify, or enforce a child support order.”16 It went on to state that

the legislative intent is
(1) to remain neutral on the issue of the underlying child support jurisdiction, if any, for the entities listed in the amended definition of “state”;
(2) not to expand or restrict the child support jurisdiction, if any, of the listed “state” entities in the amended definition; and
(3) not to assume or express any opinion about whether those entities have child support jurisdiction in fact or in law.[17]
B. The Central Council Of Tlingit And Haida Indian Tribes Of Alaska's Tribal Child Support Unit

The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Central Council or “the Tribe”) is a federally recognized Indian tribe based in Southeast Alaska.18 Central Council has established a tribal court system asserting jurisdiction over civil, criminal, probate, and juvenile law matters.19 Central Council also has a child support enforcement program known as the Tribal Child Support Unit. The Unit was first initiated in 2004, and it received full federal funding as Alaska's first Tribal IV–D program in 2007.

Tribal IV–D programs are federally funded child support enforcement programs.20 The federal government reimburses Tribal IV–D programs that comply with federal statutory and regulatory requirements for much of the cost of enforcing child support orders, just as it does for states' child support enforcement programs. One of these requirements is that any potential Tribal IV–D program describe “the population subject to the jurisdiction of the Tribal court or administrative agency for child support enforcement purposes.”21 Another is that each Tribal IV–D program [e]stablish one set of child support guidelines by law or action of the tribunal for setting and modifying child support obligation amounts.”22

Central Council's Tribal IV–D plan for the Tribal Child Support Unit grounds the jurisdiction of the tribal court in the Central Council Constitution and bylaws. Those bylaws first include the following statement of jurisdiction: “The jurisdiction of the Tribal Court shall include all territory described in Article 1 of the [Central Council] Constitution and it shall be over all persons therein, and any enrolled Tribal member citizen and their descendants wherever they are located.”23 The bylaws further include a list of actions subjecting individuals to tribal jurisdiction.24 It is under this provision, rather than the provision for territorial jurisdiction, that Central Council asserts jurisdiction here. In its Tribal IV–D plan, Central Council explains that [t]here are a number of criteria that the Court can rely on to exert its jurisdiction, which include sexual conduct which results in the paternity of a [Central Council] child and the corresponding obligation to provide for the child.”

Central Council's Tribal IV–D plan for the Tribal Child Support Unit also describes the guidelines the tribal court uses to set child support obligations. The guidelines enact a percentage-based formula that establishes the amount of an obligor's child support obligation based on adjusted income and number of children. The guidelines also foresee certain deviations for low-income obligors, for in-kind support, and for other causes.

Since the Tribal Child Support Unit began its operations in 2007, Central Council's tribal courts have heard and decided more than 100 child support cases. In each case the child was a member of the Tribe, eligible for membership, or part of a family that had received Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits from Central Council, resulting in assignment of the right to child support to the Tribe. Central Council's courts have enforced child support obligations over the jurisdictional objections of obligor parents who are neither members of the Tribe nor eligible for membership.

The Tribal Child Support Unit has worked with its state counter part, CSSD, since 2007. CSSD has referred more than 700 existing child support cases to the Unit for enforcement. CSSD has also enforced cases that the Unit referred to it, so long as the original child support order was issued by a state court rather than an Alaska tribal court. CSSD has not enforced any child support orders that Central Council's tribal courts originally issued. Only a state can garnish IRS tax refunds of obligor parents, and the Unit has coordinated with the State of Washington to do so. But certain other enforcement mechanisms, including garnishing an obligor parent's Alaska unemployment insurance benefits or Permanent Fund Dividend, require CSSD's cooperation and thus have been unavailable for enforcement of any child support orders issued by Central Council's tribal courts.

C. Proceedings Below

In January 2010 Central Council filed a complaint against the State seeking a declaration that it possesses inherent jurisdiction to decide child support cases for member and member-eligible children and an injunction directing the State to enforce child support orders issued by its tribal courts. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

The superior court granted summary judgment for the Tribe. The superior court determined that “the...

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