Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band v. Holyfield

PETITIONER: Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band
LOCATION: Dallas City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 87-980
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Mississippi

CITATION: 490 US 30 (1989)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1989
DECIDED: Apr 03, 1989

Edward O. Miller - on behalf of the appellees
Edward A. Miller - on behalf of the Appellees
Edwin R. Smith - on behalf of the Appellant

Facts of the case


Media for Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band v. Holyfield

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1989 in Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band v. Holyfield

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 87-980, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Orrey Curtiss Holyfield, et ux.

Mr. Smith, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Edwin R. Smith:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Only ten years have passed since this Court's ruling in United States v. John, where the Mississippi courts were attempting to apply state laws to Indians within the territorial jurisdiction of the... of the Choctaw Indian reservation.

At stake in that case was not simply the Indian country status of the reservation lands, but ultimately the legal existence of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as a tribal government.

Despite this Court's unanimous ruling in John vindicating the tribe's rights to a separate jurisdiction, now a decade later, Mississippi courts are once again seeking to apply state laws to Choctaw Indians of the Choctaw reservation.

At stake this time is potentially not simply the future existence of the Appellant, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, but the future existence of Indian tribes nationwide as identifiable cultural entities.

The issues before this Court arose within the context of the state adoption proceeding, a non-Indian white couple from down on the coast petitioned a state court to adopt twin full-blooded Choctaw Indian babies immediately following their birth at an off-reservation hospital.

Both the natural mother and the putative father in this case were and still are resident and domiciled on the Choctaw Indian reservation.

Quite simply, the mother left for the short period of approximately ten days for the purpose of giving birth, signing over the children for adoption and returning to the reservation.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Smith, I'm troubled a little bit by what might be a standing problem here.

The only petitioner is the Choctaw Band, isn't it?

Edwin R. Smith:

Yes, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, supposing this were a case that didn't involve Indian tribes, but involved people in California, say, getting a divorce from one another and the State of Nevada felt very strongly, since they had been both domiciled in Nevada, that Nevada courts should have had jurisdiction rather than the California courts, do you think the State of Nevada by itself could come before us and say, well, the California courts had no jurisdiction here, they should have done it in Nevada?

Edwin R. Smith:

No, sir, Chief Justice Rehnquist.

But there is a crucial distinction here in that the standing of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has been vested by statute, and--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, does the statute say in so many words that the Mississippi Band shall have a standing to raise this sort of a question?

Edwin R. Smith:

--The... the statute provides a vested interest in the tribe in the placement of its Indian children, and that is precisely what's at stake here.

We're alleging that the children were wrongfully taken from the tribe, and therefore they... they have suffered a wrong.

They have suffered an injury.

Antonin Scalia:

Well, I suppose you could say the Tenth Amendment gives the State of Nevada a vested interest, too.

I mean, does the tribe have any more interest in the ability to apply its laws by virtue of this statute than the states do by virtue of... of our constitutional structure?

Edwin R. Smith:

Yes, sir, Your Honor, I believe they do.

The distinction would be that the... the Tenth Amendment provides that all powers not vested are reserved to the states.

Now, in this particular case the powers were specifically... or the power to regulate Indian affairs was vested by the Constitution in Congress.

And Congress, in turn, has by statute conferred a protected interest in the tribe in the future of its children.

As the statute says that they are of paramount importance to the future of the tribe itself.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Smith, I guess the statute in section 1911 says the Indian child's tribe shall have a right to intervene at any point in the proceeding, in a state court proceeding, involving termination of parental rights.

Is that right?

Edwin R. Smith:

Yes, Your Honor.