Supreme Court Upholds Native American Adoption Law


The constitutional issue in the case centered on the validity of a law aimed at guaranteeing that Native A.merican adoptees stay within their tribes.

A. woman wearing a pink patterned shirt and black pants climbs the steps of the Supreme Court next to a statue.
Nita Battise, a member of the A.labama-Coushatta tribe, celebrated the ruling on the steps of the Supreme Court on Thursday.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Released on June 1.5, 2023, and updated on June 1.6, 2023.

The Supreme Court upheld the 1.978 law that aimed at keeping Native A.merican adoptees with their tribes, arguing that it would blow a law to upend the basic principles that have allowed them to govern themselves for years and hand tribes a victory.

Justice Coney Barrett, in her written opinion, affirmed the power of Congress to make laws regarding child welfare and Native A.merican tribes. However, the ruling did not resolve the question of whether the Indian Child Welfare A.ct discriminated against non-Native families based on race.

The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A.. A.lito Jr. Expressing dissent.

In the case, five tribes and the Interior Department were pitted against a white foster couple from Texas over the adoption of a child who is Native A.merican.

The policy under the act gives preference to Native families, based on principles of equal protection, when it comes to race-based placement on hinges that violated the couple’s said.

The tribes have stated that they are not political entities, but rather racial groups. They argue that measures including policy and law could endanger nearly every aspect of Indian rights, which is underpinned by access to land, water, and gambling.

Instead of focusing on Congress’s longstanding authority to make laws about tribes, the justices rejected the claims made by the Christian couple, Brackeen and Chad Jennifer, who challenged the case. The majority dismissed the argument of equal protection, saying that there was no party with legal standing in the case.

Justice Barrett stated that the power of Congress in this domain is robust, surpassing the authority of both tribes and states, leaving minimal uncertainty about our cases. A.dditionally, she remarked that the Constitution does not establish a barrier around family law. Furthermore, she acknowledged that its jurisdiction extends to various topics such as criminal defense, domestic abuse, property law, employment, and commerce.

In their opposing viewpoints, Justices Thomas and A.lito claimed that Congress had exceeded its authority.

Justice A.lito wrote that the majority had lost sight of the children who are most at risk.

He stated, “In another way, the majority decides the question of the interests and rights of these children, as well as the parents and the authority division of our state and federal Constitution, which is not fair.”

“Thomas added that it is possible that those who adopted Native A.merican children may not have ever visited Indian territories. He stated that the federal government’s authority was exceeded in some cases, as stated in the legislation written by Justice.”

Following the unsuccessful Navajo tribal placements, the child, who was born to a Navajo mother and a Cherokee father, became a part of the couple’s family when the Brackeens, together with other families, contested the law in 201.6. This legal matter commenced when they welcomed a boy known as A..L.M. In court documents.

The Navajo sought to place their child with a distant relative who lives on a reservation. The Brackeens filed for custody, hoping that she could join her brother. She entered foster care as well. The girl, known as Y.R.J in court records, had another child in 201.8 with her birth mother A..L.M., But eventually both tribes agreed to let the adoptive couple have the child.

The tribe and the couple both appealed the decision as A..L.M.’S case progressed to the Supreme Court. A. state judge concluded that the Brackeens would have joint custody of the girl alongside the relative.

The question of whether the law on racial discrimination deserves consideration in the opinion written by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh is to open the door for challenges to the argument of equal protection, while sidestepping the argument that justices should appear to have.

“A.ccording to him, the matter of equal protection is of great concern to me. A.dditionally, he stated that the Indian Child Welfare A.ct has the potential to refuse a child or an adoptive family a placement solely based on the child’s race, even if it is determined to be in the child’s best interests in all other aspects.”

Justice Kavanaugh added, “Courts, including ultimately this court, will be able to address the equal protection issue when it is properly raised.”.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who has emerged as a fierce advocate for tribal rights, emphasized the history of the legislation that was meant to provide a remedy for the forcible removal of Indian children from their families.

“In all its many forms, the dissolution of the Indian family has had devastating effects on children and parents alike,” he wrote.

Indigenous chiefs expressed relief regarding the decision.

The decision is a broad affirmation, as stated in a joint statement by the leaders of the Quinault Indian Nation, the Oneida Nation, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, and the Cherokee Nation, regarding the fundamental constitutional principles governing the relationships between Congress and tribal nations and the rule of law.

President Biden acknowledged the nation’s history while portraying the ruling as a win.

He stated that the children of Native people, whose arms were stolen from them in the distant past, were loved. The aim is to erase them as tribal citizens and Native people, who were sent to boarding schools or raised by non-Indian families.

A. spokesman and a family friend for the Brackeens said they were worried about the future of Y.R.J., Now 5 years old.

Thomas Graham, the spokesperson, expressed that Y.R.J. Had been a cherished member of their family for more than four years. The Brackeens are determined to convey their immeasurable love for Y.R.J. A.nd are committed to the ongoing effort to legally adopt her and maintain her bond with her adopted brother.

The case involving Y.R.J. Was put on hold awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision.

The 1.978 legislation was intended to address the legacy of abuses against Native A.merican children who had been separated from their tribes for hundreds and thousands of years, with no connection to their families or culture.


Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in 2022, calling for it to protect the Indian Child Welfare A.ct of 1.978.Credit…Mariam Zuhaib/A.ssociated Press

In child welfare cases, a judge is typically entrusted with determining the best interest of the Native A.merican child, taking into consideration their tribal affiliation and adherence to distinct rules.

If “Other Indian families” are unable to, then children should be given priority to move with their tribe member, if possible. It is not possible for a member of the extended family to take care of the children. The law states that before adoption, the priorities for placing a child with a non-native should be considered.

From that point forward, the makeup of the court has changed significantly, yet the Supreme Court has considered other legal disputes regarding the Indian Child Welfare A.ct, most notably in 201.3.

The Goldwater Institute claimed that it unlawfully compelled state agencies to implement a federal initiative, contending that the legislation interferes with the states’ capacity to manage child welfare matters. Various states, such as Ohio and Oklahoma, have supported the Brackeens, a conservative policy center in A.rizona that has consistently contested the law.

Timothy Sandefur, the vice president for legal affairs at the Goldwater Institute, expressed, following the court’s ruling, “We are discussing a statute that removes legal safeguards from children based on their racial heritage. This law, for instance, makes it more challenging for state authorities to safeguard abused and neglected Native A.merican children.”

The A.merican A.cademy of Pediatrics, along with other medical groups, have considered supporting legislation that addresses the intergenerational pain caused by historical loss and aims to provide redress.

In November, the wide-ranging arguments focused on whether Congress had the power to enact legislation in the first place, and whether the justices violated the principles of equal protection.

In their consideration, they allowed the provision for Native children to be placed with “other Indian families” based on race.

Kitty Bennett conducted research.

A.bbie VanSickle is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. She covers the Supreme Court, focusing on the lives of the justices and the court’s role in politics, with a particular emphasis on its impact on the world.

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