Friday, January 14, 2011

The Existing Indian Family Exception to ICWA (part 3)

Part 3 of my paper on the existing Indian family exception to ICWA.

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield
     In Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the United States Supreme Court dealt with the status of twin babies who were born out of wedlock to parents who both were enrolled members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (Tribe) as well as residents and domiciliaries of the Choctaw Reservation.[1]  On January 10, 1986, the twins’ mother deliberately gave birth to the twins in a county some 200 miles from the reservation and executed a consent-to-adoption form in that same county.[2]  The twins’ father signed a similar form.[3]  On January 16, 1986, the Holyfields filed a petition for adoption of the twins in the same court; and the adoption proceedings were concluded on January 28 with the issuance of a Final Decree of Adoption.[4]  The adoption decree contained no reference to ICWA or mention of the twins’ Indian background, despite the Chancery Court’s apparent awareness of both.[5] 
     Two months after the Final Decree of Adoption the Tribe moved to vacate the adoption decree on the ground that the tribal court should have exclusive jurisdiction of the twins.[6]  The Chancery Court overruled the motion and held that the Tribe had “never obtained exclusive jurisdiction over the children…”[7]  That court primarily relied upon a few facts in reaching this conclusion; first, that the twins’ mother “went to some efforts to see that they were born outside the confines of the Choctaw Indian Reservation,” second, that the parents had promptly arranged for the adoption of the twins by the Holyfields, and third, that “at no time from the birth of these children to the present date have either of them resided on or physically been on the Choctaw Indian Reservation.”[8]  The Supreme Court of Mississippi subsequently affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision.[9]  That court stated that,
The Indian twins…were voluntarily surrendered and legally abandoned by the natural parents to the adoptive parents, and it is undisputed that the parents went to some efforts to prevent the children from being placed on the reservation as the mother arranged for their birth and adoption in Gulfport Memorial Hospital, Harrison County, Mississippi;

and distinguished state cases that appeared to establish that “the domicile of minor children follows that of the parents.”[10]  The Mississippi Supreme Court said that the domicile of the twins was off of the reservation and that the state court properly had jurisdiction over the adoption proceedings of those twins.[11]  In support of its position, the Supreme Court of Mississippi stated that the lower court judge “did conform and strictly adhere to the minimum federal standards governing adoption of Indian children with respect to parental consent, notice, service of process, etc.,” while at the same time concluding that the provisions of ICWA were inapplicable by stating that “these proceedings…actually escape applicable federal law on Indian Child Welfare.”[12] 
     The United States Supreme Court recognized that the proceeding at issue was a “child custody proceeding” and that the children involved in that proceeding were “Indian children.”[13]  Because the twins fit into these portions of ICWA, the issues for determination by the Court were whether the state law definition of “domicile” should control, and whether under the ICWA definition of “domicile” the twins were non-domiciliaries on the reservation.[14]  The Supreme Court recognized that the language of ICWA does not define “domicile;” and that the definition is a matter of Congressional intent.[15]  The Court began with the canon of construction, stating that “in the absence of a plain indication to the contrary,…Congress when it enacts a statute is not making the application of the federal act dependent on state law.”[16]  It reached this conclusion because “federal statutes are generally intended to have uniform nationwide application,”[17] and because of the presumption that “the federal program would be impaired if state law were to control.”[18]  Congress very clearly did not intend for the critical terms in ICWA to rely on state law for definition, and actually was quite concerned with curtailing state authority.[19]  In support, the Court states that,
Even if we could conceive of a federal statute under which the rules of domicile (and thus of jurisdiction) applied differently to different Indian children, a statute under which different rules apply from time to time to the same child, simply as a result of his or her transport from one State to another, cannot be what Congress had in mind.[20] 

In fact, the Court is concerned that a State might apply a definition of domicile that would render ICWA inapplicable, or that an “adoption brokerage business” might develop if Mississippi’s position were sustained.[21] 
     Because the United States Supreme Court determined that state law does not control the definition of “domicile,” it relied upon the term’s generally uncontroverted and widely used definition.[22]  The Court stated that domicile for adults is “established by physical presence in a place in connection with a certain state of mind concerning one’s intent to remain there.”[23]  The Court continues that the domicile of minors is determined by the domicile of their parents because “most minors are legally incapable of forming the requisite intent to establish a domicile” of their own and that the domicile of illegitimate children means the domicile of the mother.[24] 
     Because the domicile of the unwed mother and father was at all relevant times on the Choctaw Reservation, the domicile of the twin babies, at the time of their birth, was also on the reservation.[25]  The Court continues that the mother’s voluntary surrender of the twins’ to the Holyfields does not render this finding of domicile on the reservation incorrect.[26]  In perhaps the most significant statement of ICWA and the portion of the opinion which most directly affects the existing Indian family doctrine, the United States Supreme Court declared that,
Tribal jurisdiction under § 1911(a) was not meant to be defeated by the actions of individual members of the tribe, for Congress was concerned not solely about the interests of Indian children and families, but also about the impact on the tribes themselves of the large numbers of Indian children adopted by non-Indians.[27] 

The Court also continues that “the protection of this tribal interest [the tribe’s ability to assert its interest in its children] is at the core of the ICWA, which recognizes that the tribe has an interest in the child which is distinct from but on parity with the interest of the parents.”[28]  In line with this position, the United States Supreme Court, with three dissenters, reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Mississippi and remanded the case. 

[1] 490 U.S. 30, 30 and 37 (1989). 
[2] Id. 
[3] Id. at 38. 
[4] Id. 
[5] Id. 
[6] Id. 
[7] Id. at 39 (internal citations omitted). 
[8] Id. (internal citations omitted). 
[9] Id. 
[10] Id. at 40 (ellipses in original; internal citations omitted). 
[11] Id. 
[12] Id. (ellipses in original). 
[13] Id. at 42. 
[14] Id. at 42 and 47. 
[15] Id. at 43. 
[16] Id. (ellipses in original; internal citations omitted). 
[17] It appears that the Supreme Court’s admonishment that ICWA be applied uniformly across the country is being mostly ignored by the states and that the application of the Act will, in many circumstances (including with the existing Indian family doctrine, among others), depend upon where a child custody proceeding is commenced.  B.J. Jones, The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook at chapter 6. 
[18] Id. (internal citations omitted). 
[19] Id. at 45. 
[20] Id. at 46. 
[21] Id. 
[22] Id. at 48. 
[23] Id. (internal citation omitted). 
[24] Id. (internal citations omitted). 
[25] Id. at 48-49. 
[26] Id. 
[27] Id. at 49. 
[28] Id. at 52.  

1 comment:

  1. An updated version of this article was published in the Family Law Reporter. The article can be accessed through my JDSupra profile: