The Navajo judicial system captured the nation's attention last year when the Utah Supreme Court sent the battle over the custody of adopted Navajo Michael Carter to the Navajo Children's Court.
The case highlights the jurisdictional dilemma faced by state courts and tribal courts in deciding where each has the power to hear a case, a dilemma also faced by attorneys in other recent lawsuits.Despite fears Carter would be forced by the tribe to return to the Navajo Indian Reservation after seven years with his adoptive parents in Spanish Fork, the tribal court oversaw a settlement that satisfied all involved.
"The concern expressed in Utah over the case was based on a lack of knowledge," said Tom Tso, chief justice of the Navajo Supreme Court, explaining that many people believe the tribal judiciary is an "uncivilized system unable to meet society's needs.
"I think that is an old view a lot of people have, and I think it is no longer true."
The Carter case brought national media attention to the dusty capital of Navajoland Window Rock, Ariz.
Carter, born Jeremiah Halloway, was adopted by Dan and Patricia Carter, after the boy's mother consented to the adoption in 1980. But in 1982, Carter's mother, Cecelia Saunders, a Navajo Indian, rescinded the adoption, beginning a legal battle that ended only last October.
In December 1986, Justice Michael C. Zimmerman, writing in the majority opinion, ruled that the tribe had jurisdiction over the child under the Indian Child Welfare Act and that the Utah courts had improperly taken jurisdiction of the boy. Carter's fate was now in the hands of the Navajo judiciary.
Zimmerman said the court was aware of the ramifications of removing Carter from his Spanish Fork home but would rely on the wisdom of the tribal court to reach a compassionate decision.
The ruling, which said Carter was brought to Utah for adoption without the consent of the Navajo tribe, cast doubt over the boy's future with his Spanish Fork parents.
"Our attorney is working with the Navajo Tribe to see what they want, and we just pray that something will happen so we can keep him," Dan Carter told the Deseret News following the 1986 ruling.
Before Navajo Tribal Children's Court Judge Calvin Yazzie, an agreement was reached between the Carters and Saunders during a three-day hearing. Although the Carters could not officially adopt Michael, they could retain permanent guardianship of the boy, giving them virtually everything they sought.
Saunders' parental rights were severed, but she retained visiting rights that she could not have enjoyed had her son been officially adopted.
In another tribal-state conflict, attorneys representing several Navajo Indians in a class action suit are battling the Utah attorney general's office over $235,000. As in the Carter case, the dispute also seems to boil down to a question of the tribal court's jurisdictional sovereignty.
Navajo Tribal Judge Robert Yazzie ruled last year in the suit, which is now on appeal in the Navajo Supreme Court, that the state illegally seized 1985 and 1986 tax returns from Navajos delinquent in their child-support payments.
The state argues it has jurisdiction under the federal Social Security Act to garnish a reservation-bound Navajo's tax return to reimburse the state Office of Recovery Services, charged with recovering support payments.
But attorneys representing the Indians claim the state has illegally seized the returns by failing to obtain tribal court orders and has blocked the state from obtaining tax-return information from the U.S. Treasury.