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Details: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl


Baby Girl is a case in which a woman from Oklahoma agreed to allow a South Carolina couple to adopt her newborn daughter after the baby’s biological father disclaimed any interest in raising the child.  The biological father was estranged from the biological mother and provided no support during the mother’s pregnancy, so the couple would normally not have needed his consent to adopt the child.  However, when he learned of the planned adoption, he objected.  And because he is a registered member of an Indian tribe, the lower courts ruled that a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), barred the adoption.  As a result, the South Carolina Supreme Court gave custody of the girl to the biological father.


The Court had before it two competing interpretations of the ICWA: the more expansive version, advocated by the biological father, argued essentially that ICWA applies whenever a court is considering whether to terminate parental rights of an Indian parent; the competing interpretation, advanced by the adoptive parents, argues that ICWA’s coverage is limited to the kinds of cases that Congress most likely had in mind when it passed ICWA — namely, those in which social workers and other government officials are seeking to remove Indian children from an existing Indian family.  Today, in a five-to-four opinion, the Court took an approach based upon the latter interpretation.


Writing for the Court, Justice Alito (joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Breyer) explained that the relevant sections of ICWA were designed to prevent the dismantling of Indian families by the removal of Indian children.  Justice Alito interpreted Congress’s design of Section 1912(f), which addresses the involuntary termination of parental rights with respect to an Indian child, as excluding cases in which an Indian parent never had legal or physical custody of the child in question.  “In sum … [where] the adoption of an Indian child is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights, the ICWA’s primary goal of preventing the unwarranted removal of Indian children and the dissolution of Indian families is not implicated.”  And Section 1912(d), like 1912(f), applies “only in cases where an Indian family’s ‘breakup’ would be precipitated by the termination of the parent’s rights.”  That section, the Court explained, is “sensible” when it is applied “to state social workers who might otherwise be too quick to remove Indian children from their Indian families.  It would, however, be unusual to apply [Section] 1912(d) in the context of an Indian parent who abandoned a child prior to birth and who never had custody of the child.”


Consequently, the Court held that ICWA’s provisions were not designed to apply to the circumstances presented by this case.  The Court reversed the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and remanded for further proceedings.  Justice Thomas concurred to emphasize that the Court’s result was compelled by constitutional avoidance.  Justice Breyer also concurred separately.  Justice Sotomayor wrote the principal dissent, joined by Justice Scalia (in part) and Justices Ginsburg and Kagan in full.


Recommended Citation: Mike Gottlieb, Details: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 25, 2013, 10:53 AM),