By Matt Buxton, Newsminer.com
FAIRBANKS — Alaska Native tribes will no longer have to jump through extra hoops to have their domestic violence restraining orders enforced by the state.
A legal opinion issued by Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards ruled Alaska law was out of line with the federal Violence Against Women Act, clearing the way for a direct link between tribal courts and state troopers.
“This opinion provides clear direction to officers on the ground as well as the victims they seek to protect,” Richards said in a news release. “There should now be no doubt that these protection orders must be enforced.”
The legal opinion found an Alaska law requiring tribal court-issued restraining orders be registered with courts before they could be enforced was superseded by federal Violence Against Women Act.
The Violence Against Women Act specifically says protective orders issued by Alaska Native tribes, other tribes and other governments do not need to be registered to be enforced.
“The State should not enforce or apply the provisions of state law that conflict with VAWA,” the opinion said, “and should investigate and prosecute violations of tribal and foreign protection orders that meet the full faith and credit requirements set forth in VAWA.”
Tanana Chiefs Conference President Victor Joseph applauded the decision, saying it will help curb domestic violence and empower tribes.
“This will no doubt add to the protection of our Native women and children in our villages,” he said. “It is one less step victims will have to take in order to get the protection from law enforcement that they deserve. It is also a step in the right direction needed to lower the high rates of domestic violence as recognized by the Indian Law & Order Commission’s report.”
The protective orders must still comply with the guidelines set out in the Violence Against Women Act. Those include the tribe having the appropriate jurisdiction over the issue and provide due process.
The protection orders must be for “the protection of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking,” according to the federal law.
The order still encourages the tribes to register protection orders with the state court system.
“While not required for enforcement, registration of tribal and foreign protection orders helps officers to protect and serve the public,” the order explains.
The opinion was requested by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger.
The jurisdiction of tribal courts is likely to continue to be an important issue in Alaska in coming years.
North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill has introduced a bill that would give tribal courts jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes. He said it not only lessens the cost for the state to enforce misdemeanor laws in rural Alaska, but importantly is a better tool to address problems in rural Alaska than the traditional court system.
“The tribal courts are using a restorative justice model that really suits many small villages,” he said. “To be fair, there are some that do it well and some that are not doing it as well as others, but the reality is something has got to happen in the rural communities to allow people to hold each other accountable.”
Granting tribes greater jurisdiction over criminal and civil issues has been a prickly issue for many legislators and administrations, but Coghill said there’s a compromise that can and should be struck.
“We have such a diversity in Alaska,” he said, “and if you can’t find a way to work in those diverse conditions, I think we’ve failed.”
Next week the Tanana Chiefs Conference will be hosting its annual Tribal Court Development Conference in Fairbanks.