Facts of the Case
A father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, relinquished his parental rights for his daughter and the birth mother placed their child for adoption. When non-Indian adoptive parents commenced adoption proceedings, the biological father sought custody of his daughter, even though he did not provide financial support and had never had custody of the child. The adoptive parents, on the other hand, provided financial support during the pregnancy and had custody of the child. Nevertheless, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a decision granting the father custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The case was appealed on certiorari.
Could the contract between Fletcher and Peck be invalidated by an act of the Georgia legislature?
“No, a non-custodial parent cannot invoke the ICWA to block an adoption voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent. The Court did not rule on the definition of “parent,” but, for the sake of argument, assumed that the biological father was a “parent” under the ICWA. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority. The Court held that the ICWA was designed to stop the practice of unwarranted removal of Indian children from Indian families “due to the cultural insensitivity and bias of social workers and state courts.” In this case, however, the Court noted that the biological father never had either legal or physical custody of Baby Girl and had previously relinquished his parental rights. Because the biological father gave up custody before birth, and because Baby Girl had never been in his legal or physical custody, the ICWA’s goal to prevent the breakup of Indian families did not apply. Furthermore, the Court held that the ICWA’s preference for placing an Indian child with family, other members of the tribe, or other Indian families did not apply in this case because no other parties beside the adoptive parents had come forward to adopt Baby Girl. The Court feared that applying the lower court’s rationale could lead to a scenario where a biological Indian father could play an “ICWA trump card” to override the mother’s decision and the child’s best interests.In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that the federal government, in passing the ICWA, may have interfered in the area of family law, a topic constitutionally reserved to the states. However, because the majority opinion avoided constitutional problems, he concurred with the decision. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a separate concurrence in which he stated that the majority’s decision may adversely affect parents without looking at whether the parent would look out for the child’s best interest, and that the ruling still raised the possibility of allowing an absentee father to re-gain custody with the support of his tribe.Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent in which she argued that the majority’s opinion distorted the statute and led to a result that was both contrary to Congress’ intent and potentially devastating to Baby Girl. Additionally, she argued that the majority completely ignores Congress’ policy reasons for passing the ICWA and distorts the clear provisions in the act. Finally, Justice Sotomayor stated that the majority’s interpretation of the ICWA applies adversely to all noncustodial Indian parents, regardless of whether those parents actively participated in their child’s upbringing. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent, and Justice Antonin Scalia joined in part. In his separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the majority’s definition of the phrase, “continued custody,” should have also included future custody. He also wrote that the majority’s decision “needlessly demeans the right of parenthood” by removing a father’s right to raise his child.”
Citation: 570 US 637 (2013)
Granted: Jan 4, 2013
Argued: Apr 16, 2013
Decided: Jun 25, 2013
Case Brief: 2013