Tribal law in the United States is often considered to be one of the most complex legal topics. Native American reservations are considered sovereign nations, so any legal dealings between tribal governments and the federal, state or local government can be incredibly complex. This was the case for a Florida man trying to obtain a fair child custody hearing.
The children involved in this family law case were parented by an unmarried Native American mother and a non-Native American father. When the couple split up and tried to settle custody arrangements, the mother demanded that it be settled in a Miccosukee tribal courtroom. However, the father said this arrangement put him at an unfair disadvantage.
As such, the father filed a claim with a Florida state court to have the child custody case moved out of the tribal court. Although it's not common for Florida state judges to move child custody cases from the jurisdiction of tribal courts, a judge did so in this case. According to the Florida judge's ruling, the tribal court was discriminatory against the father.
When custody proceedings moved ahead in tribal court, the man wasn't allowed to bring a lawyer into the courtroom and the hearing was conducted exclusively in the Miccosukee language. There wasn't a certified translator provided for the father.
A pivotal aspect of the case, however, was the fact that the children's mother hadn't resided on the reservation until just before she filed her claim in tribal court. According to state law, the jurisdiction of the custody case is determined by where the kids lived within six months of the custody trial's beginning. Because the mother and children had lived off of the reservation until just before the legal hearings started, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the state court system.
Although this is a particularly unique custody case, the principle of preserving the children's best interests rings true. Having exposure to both parents can be beneficial for children, so the father in this case deserves a fair shot at obtaining custody rights.
Source: Miami Herald, "Miccosukee child custody case should remain in Florida court, judge rules," David Ovalle, Nov. 22, 2013