Appeals Court Rules that State, Not Tribal, Court Has Jurisdiction in Miccosukee Custody Case

A recent ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal sided against a Native American mother in her attempt to invoke the jurisdiction of the Miccosukee Tribal Court to resolve a custody dispute regarding two children she shared with a man who was not Native American. The decision has substantial impact for South Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe, which is situated in the Everglades just to the west of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

While the issue of custody of children who are part Native American has been prominently litigated recently, including the “Baby Veronica” case which went all the way to the US Supreme Court, the dispute between a mother who was a member of the Miccosukee Tribe, and a father who was not Native American, involved a different aspect of the law. This case did not involve resolving custody based upon the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, as was the case in the “Baby Veronica” matter, but rather the the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.

The case began when a custody dispute cropped up between the parents and the mother filed for custody in the Miccosukee Tribal Court. The court held a hearing and awarded custody to the mother. The father then filed in the 11th Circuit Court in Miami. The mother sought to shut down the father’s case, arguing that the tribal court had resolved the matter and that, under the terms of the UCCJEA, the Florida court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute.

The Circuit Court disagreed, concluding that the Tribal Court action did not comply with the requirements of the UCCJEA, so the mother was not entitled to use UCCJEA to stop the father’s action in the Florida court.

The appeals court upheld the Circuit Court’s decision. While the custody orders of tribal courts are generally entitled to recognition under the UCCJEA the same as orders from other states’ courts, this rule only applies if the tribal court’s proceeding was in “substantial conformity” with the UCCJEA. In this case, the problem area was the UCCJEA’s requirement that the hearing resolving custody give each parent an “effective opportunity” to be heard.

In the Miccosukee hearing, the father had no such opportunity. The court conducted the hearing predominantly in the Miccosukee language, and did not give the father an interpreter. The court refused to permit the father’s attorney to be present in the courtroom and allowed the mother to testify at length in Miccosukee, while permitting the father only a very brief English statement summarizing his position.

Because the tribal court hearing did not meet the UCCJEA standards, the UCCJEA did not prohibit the Florida trial court from hearing the father’s case.

Custody matters in cases where one parent is Native American and one is not are uniquely complicated and not uncommon in Florida, which is home to several thousand Native Americans. To obtain knowledgeable and thoughtful advice, and zealous advocacy when needed, for your custody dispute, consult the South Florida family law attorneys of Sandy T. Fox, P.A.. Our attorneys can offer skilled and sensitive assistance in resolving these matters.

Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court Rules Against Dwyane Wade in Latest Round of Divorce and Custody Battle, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Oct. 24, 2013
The Legal Battle for the Miccosukee children in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, May 8, 2013