A custody dispute involving the children of a Miccosukee mother and non-Indian father belongs in a Florida state court, not in a tribal court, a Miami-Dade judge ruled this week.
The decision marks the first time a South Florida judge has stripped authority from the tribal court in a child custody case.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mindy Glazer ruled in favor of Kevin Stier, who is seeking joint custody of his two young children with tribal member Layla Billie.
Stier went to local court last year, after the tribe’s court awarded temporary custody of the two children to Billie during an October 2012 hearing at the tribe’s reservation off Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. That day, Stier’s lawyer was not allowed to enter the courtroom and the hearing was conducted only in the Miccosukee language.
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His attorneys, William Brady and Jay Levy, said that the Miami-Dade judge’s ruling was a clear victory that showed the tribal court was “discriminatory” against Stier.
“The father was not given a fair opportunity to assert his parental rights,” Brady said.
Stier and Billie never married but lived together for several years and had two children together. It will now be up to Judge Glazer, not tribal judges, to decide how the children split their time with their parents.
Stier said he was happy with the decision and thankful for the work of his lawyers.
“I will finally have the right to fight for my children in a fair court,’’ he said. “That’s all I ever wanted."
Billie’s attorney, Elisa Terraferma, said she was considering an appeal. “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the ruling,’’ she said.
The Miccosukee tribe, which has about 600 members and owns a gambling resort at the corner of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail, is considered a sovereign nation. 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 from where the children resided “within six months” of the “commencement of the proceedings” for child custody.
At a Miami-Dade hearing in September, Stier’s lawyers said Billie long lived in Pembroke Pines and moved back to the reservation only after the legal squabble began. Billie claimed she always lived on the reservation and that the children have only attended tribal school.
Judge Glazer ruled that Billie herself admitted, in a petition to the tribal court, that she did not live on the reservation. The judge also noted that Stier was never given proper notice of the October 2012 hearing at the Miccosukee courthouse.
At the hearing, Stier’s lawyer was forced to wait outside and was not allowed to represent him, Glazer noted. And the entire hearing was conducted in Miccosukee without an English-certified translator present for Stier, the judge said.
“The Miccosukee Indian Court’s child custody ruling shall not be enforced by this court,” Glazer wrote in an 11-page ruling.
Similar child custody disputes are not unusual in states with large Native American populations. But they are rare in Florida, where the population is less than 10,000.
The custody case is the latest in series of high-profile court battles involving the Miccosukee Tribe in recent years.
This month, a federal judge threatened to fine the tribe’s chairman, Colley Billie, if he continued to defy her order to turn over financial documents sought by the Internal Revenue Service. The government is probing the finances of his predecessor, former longtime Chairman Billy Cypress.
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 is also suing its ex-lawyers, alleging malpractice and racketeering. A federal court dismissed the suits, saying they should instead be filed in state court.
In 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. The tribe is also embroiled in a legal fight with the county over efforts to designate its West Kendall golf course as part of the tribe’s federally protected reserve.