A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Supreme Court rules for adoptive couple in American Indian adoption case

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 Tuesday in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that §1912(f) and §1912(d) of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) do not bar the termination of the biological father's parental rights. In this case, a woman put her baby, who was fathered by an American Indian, up for adoption. A South Carolina couple attempted to adopt the child, but once the biological father was notified about the adoption proceedings, he attempted to gain custody. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled for the biological father [opinion], stating that the federal ICWA, which seeks to keep American Indian children in their ethnic communities, preempts South Carolina law. In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court reversed that decision:

Contrary to the State Supreme Court's ruling, we hold that 25 USC §1912(f )—which bars involuntary termination of a parent's rights in the absence of a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian child is likely to result from the parent's "continued custody" of the child—does not apply when, as here, the relevant parent never had custody of the child. We further hold that §1912(d)—which conditions involuntary termination of parental rights with respect to an Indian child on a showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the "breakup of the Indian family"—is inapplicable when, as here, the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child. Finally, we clarify that —1915(a), which provides placement preferences for the adoption of Indian children, does not bar a non-Indian family like Adoptive Couple from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child. We accordingly reverse the South Carolina Supreme Court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer filed concurring opinions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan and joined in part by Justice Antonin Scalia, who also filed a separate dissent.

The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in April. An attorney for the Adoptive Couple argued that the courts have interpreted the ICWA too broadly in applying it to this case. The attorney for Dustin Brown, the biological father of Baby Girl, argued that, barring Brown's inability to be a good father under the statute, his parental rights had to be terminated affirmatively. The Solicitor General supported Brown's claim.

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.