Building a public relations network between tribal courts and other entities inside and outside the village promotes cooperation between them. Tribal courts often develop relations with outside entities such as the Alaska State Troopers when problems arise, but it would be beneficial for tribal courts to be proactive and to reach out and develop relations outside of times of crisis and immediate problems. It is helpful for the court clerk to develop a list of contacts with phone numbers and emails for all agencies, courts, and service organizations the tribal court interfaces with or may need to in the future.
Developing working relationships with state agencies, state court judges, and other tribal courts is especially relevant where tribes and the State share jurisdiction such as over child custody. It may be very advantageous for a tribal court to have a good working relationship with the state Office of Children’s Services (OCS) worker serving their area. In many instances, an OCS worker will call a tribal office informing them that a child is in trouble and offering the tribal court a chance to take the child into custody before the State does. If the tribe discovers a child in harms way, the tribal staff will make a report to OCS even if the tribal court takes that case. Since tribes and the State share jurisdiction over child custody and protection, the court that takes a case first is the court that gains jurisdiction. So, this type of ‘heads up’ given by an OCS worker is extremely valuable to tribal courts.
It is important for a tribal court, judges and clerks, to build a working relationship with the state magistrate or other state court personnel serving the area. This is valuable for many reasons, but a specific example is for the filing of a tribal protective order. In order for a tribal protective order to get into the State’s central registry system, the tribal protective order must be given to a state court to assign a case number to and to file it. Even through the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) requires that all states and tribes honor each other’s orders of protection, Alaska statutes require ‘foreign orders’ (those issued by some other court) to be filed with the Alaska court system in order to get them into Alaska’s Department of Public Safety’s central registry system. The central registry is what police statewide call into to verify a protective order. If a person to be protected travels outside the village and the tribal protective order is in the registry, the protective order can be accessed and verified by any police officer. A good working relationship with the magistrate or other state court personnel for the area will facilitate this process.
Developing working relationships with other tribal courts in Alaska is essential for tribes to learn from each other and to share resources and experiences. It is also essential when handling cases involving children who are members of, or eligible for membership in more than one tribe. Often it is the clerk’s responsibility to contact any other tribe or tribes that the child is a member of or eligible for membership in, and to begin a discussion as to how the tribal court will proceed with the case. Some options the tribal courts have in these situations include:
- If more than one tribe has jurisdiction over a child, they may decide that one has more significant contacts with the child, or one is generally better suited to hear the case.
- If more than one tribe has significant contacts with the child, the tribal courts of those communities may decide to work out a cooperative agreement such as a joint tribal court panel to hear the case. A joint tribal court panel is an option that is fairly common among Alaska tribes. If a joint panel is used, the tribes should decide ahead of time if there will be an appellate court, and what the structure of the appellate court would be if a Party wishes to appeal the case.
- Tribes could allow other tribes to be interveners (advisors) on a children’s case, similarly to state courts under the terms of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
- If a tribal court is hearing a case, has significant connections with the child, and has made significant progress in the handling of the case, the other tribal courts should defer to that court’s jurisdiction, permitting it to complete the case.
- In emergencies, the tribal court that begins to handle a case should be recognized by the other tribal courts to have ‘priority’ jurisdiction for the time being. If another tribal court has more significant connection to the child, the case can be transferred to that court later.
These are just a few examples of how beneficial building public relation networks can be. A tribe that has a well designed court that is fundamentally fair, follows due process, and has worked hard on its public relations network is in a very good position to put tribal sovereignty into practice and handle a wide range of problems at the village level. Tribal court clerks are on the front lines of building bridges of communication for their tribal courts. They should be proactive and reach out in developing relationships with their tribal and state counterparts, and with any entity or agency where a cooperative relationship would benefit the tribal court.