Appeals court: Tribal judges should not oversee custody dispute case

A Miami appeals court says a custody dispute between a Miccosukee mother and non-Indian father should remain in state court, not tribal court.

The decision Wednesday by the Third District Court of Appeal marks the first time a Florida appeals court has agreed to strip the authority of tribal court judges in a child custody case.

Similar child custody disputes are not unusual in states with large Native American populations. But they are rare in Florida, where the tribal population is less than 10,000.

The case was brought by Kevin Stier, of West Miami-Dade, who is seeking joint custody of his two young children with tribal member Layla Billie.

Stier went to state court last year, after the tribe’s court awarded temporary custody of the two children to Billie during an October 2012 hearing at the Miccosukee reservation off Tamiami Trail in the Everglades.

That day, Stier’s lawyer was not allowed to enter the tribal courtroom and the hearing was conducted only in the Miccosukee language.

The Miccosukee tribe, which has about 600 members and owns a gambling resort at the corner of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail, is a sovereign nation under federal law and has its own courthouse, police department and governing council. Under the state’s child-custody enforcement act, foreign countries are treated the same as other states when it comes to custody battles between parents.

The key provision of the law: the court with jurisdiction is the one located where the children resided “within six months” of the “commencement of the proceedings” for child custody.

Stier’s lawyers said Billie had not lived on the reservation but in Pembroke Pines, moving back to the reservation only after the legal battle began. Last November, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mindy Glazer agreed, saying the case belonged in Florida state court.

The Third DCA agreed with Glazer that the tribal court’s procedures — which did not allow Stier to testify or even have his lawyer in the court to watch — were legally substandard.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed,” said Billie’s lawyer, Elisa Terraferma, who said the tribe is considering whether to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

The custody case is the latest in a series of high-profile court battles involving the Miccosukee Tribe.

The federal government is investigating the finances of former tribal chairman Billy Cypress, and the tribe has gone to court to try to avoid turning over financial records. So far, the IRS has placed $170 million in tax liens on the tribe for back taxes, interest and penalties.

The tribe has also sued its former chairman, accusing him of embezzling $26 million from the Miccosukees. The tribe was also suing its former lawyers, claiming malpractice and racketeering, but a federal court dismissed the suits, saying they should instead be filed in state court.

Last June, a Miami-Dade judge ordered the tribe to pay a $3.2 million judgment levied against a Miccosukee woman who killed a mother in a head-on car collision.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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