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Indian Nations Law Update - July 2013

July 09, 2013

Supreme Court Decides Indian Child Welfare Act Case
In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, --- S.Ct. ----, 2013 WL 3184627 (U.S. 2013), the baby girl in question (Baby Girl) was born in Oklahoma to unwed parents, including a Cherokee father (Father) and non-Indian mother (Mother). After the couple broke up during the pregnancy, Father, in response to an inquiry from Mother, text-messaged Mother that he would rather give up parental rights than pay child support. Mother decided to terminate her parental rights and give the baby up for adoption.

The adoptive parents (Adoptive Parents), residents of South Carolina, were present when Baby Girl was born September 15, 2009, and took her home with them shortly after receiving permission from Oklahoma pursuant to the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children. Adoptive Parents began adoption proceedings in South Carolina three days after Baby Girl was born but Father did not receive notice until nearly four months later, in January 2010. when a process server presented him with an "Acceptance of Service and Answer," which purported to waive the 30-day waiting period, waive notice of hearing and waive any objection to the adoption. Father, a soldier about to depart for Iraq, signed but then immediately changed his mind and sought a stay of adoption under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act.

The Cherokee Nation, which had previously indicated that Father was not a citizen, later determined that he was. The South Carolina adoption petition was amended accordingly in March 2010. After establishing paternity through DNA testing, Father challenged the adoption. Adoptive parents argued that, under South Carolina law, there was no need for Father's consent to the adoption because Father had neither lived with Mother or Baby Girl for the six months preceding the adoption nor paid child support. The South Carolina family court judge ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) applied and mandated that Baby Girl be turned over to father. After various stay motions were denied, Father returned to Oklahoma with Baby Girl December 31, 2011. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.

On June 25, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision reversed. The state court had relied in part on Section 1912(f) of the codified ICWA, which bars termination of parental rights to an Indian child unless the court finds that "the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child." Emphasizing the word "continued," the Court held that "§ 1912(f) does not apply where the Indian parent never had custody of the Indian child" (Emphasis in original).

The Court also disagreed with the South Carolina court's conclusion that termination of Father's rights was barred by Section 1912(d), which requires a showing that efforts have been made "to prevent the breakup of the Indian family," holding Section 1912(d) inapplicable in Father's case: "But when an Indian parent abandons an Indian child prior to birth and that child has never been in the Indian parent's legal or physical custody, there is no relationship that would be discontinued - and no effective entity that would be ended - by the termination of the Indian parent's rights." (Internal quotes and ellipses omitted).

Finally, the Court held that Section 1915(a), which mandates preference "in any adoptive placement" for a member of the child's extended family, other members of the child's tribe or other Indian families, in that order, did not apply in the case of Baby Girl: "This is because there simply is no 'preference' to apply if no alternative party that is eligible to be preferred under § 1915(a) has come forward."

In an important concurrence, Justice Breyer explicitly left open whether ICWA sections 1915(a), (b) and (f) might apply under different circumstances, e.g., where the Indian father (1) has visitation rights, (2) has paid child support, (3) was deceived about the existence of a child, or (4) was prevented from supporting his child.

In a dissent joined by three other members of the Court, Justice Sotomayor accused the majority of distorting the meaning of the term "continued" to defeat the very purposes for which Congress had enacted the ICWA:

The majority's hollow literalism distorts the statute and ignores Congress' purpose in order to rectify a perceived wrong that, while heartbreaking at the time, was a correct application of federal law and that in any case cannot be undone. Baby Girl has now resided with her father for 18 months. However difficult it must have been for her to leave Adoptive Couple's home when she was just over 2 years old, it will be equally devastating now if, at the age of 3 1/2, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country. Such a fate is not foreordained, of course. But it can be said with certainty that the anguish this case has caused will only be compounded by today's decision.

According to the dissent, "continued" custody, consistent with congressional intent, means prospective custody and does not preclude the application of ICWA's protections to a non-custodial Indian parent, including (1) the requirement that a proceeding be transferred to tribal court upon the Indian parent's request, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, as required by Section 1911(b), (2) the requirement that any consent to adoption be in writing and executed before a judge, per Section 1913(a), (3) the requirement of Section 1912(a) that an Indian parent and the child's tribe receive notice, and (4) the requirement of Section 1912(b) that the Indian parent be provided with legal counsel.

The dissent also sends a message to the state court, which will now consider the case on remand, laying out a scenario that could result in Father having no parental rights but having a relationship with his own daughter through relatives:

[T]he majority does not and cannot foreclose the possibility that on remand, Baby Girl's paternal grandparents or other members of the Cherokee Nation may formally petition for adoption of Baby Girl. If these parties do so, and if on remand Birth Father's parental rights are terminated so that an adoption becomes possible, they will then be entitled to consideration under the order of preference established in § 1915. The majority cannot rule prospectively that § 1915 would not apply to an adoption petition that has not yet been filed. Indeed, the statute applies "[i]n any adoptive placement of an Indian child under State law," 25 U.S.C. § 1915(a) (emphasis added), and contains no temporal qualifications. It would indeed be an odd result for this Court, in the name of the child's best interests, cf. ante, at ----, to purport to exclude from the proceedings possible custodians for Baby Girl, such as her paternal grand-parents, who may have well-established relationships with her.

In an odd concurring opinion, Justice Thomas blesses the majority for not reaching more fundamental constitutional questions but then embarks on an originalist reimagining of federal Indian law pursuant to which (1) Congress had no authority to enact the ICWA, (2) the doctrine of congressional plenary power is error, (3) congressional power is strictly limited to commercial trade with Indian tribes located beyond state borders, and (4) congressional power does not extend to citizens of tribes. The idea behind concurrences of this nature is to plant seeds that the author hopes will germinate into a majority of the court at some future date.

Supreme Court Will Hear Bay Mills v. Michigan Next Term
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed June 24 to hear the case of Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community in its next term. The Bay Mills Indian Community (Tribe) had purchased fee land in Vanderbilt, Michigan, about 100 miles from its reservation, with earnings from a trust established by the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act (Act). Citing a provision in the Act that "earnings generated by the Land Trust shall be used exclusively for improvements on tribal land or the consolidation and enhancement of tribal landholdings through purchase or exchange" and that "[a]ny land acquired with funds from the Land Trust shall be held as Indian lands are held," the Tribe opened a casino. The Department of the Interior determined that the Vanderbilt land did not satisfy the criteria of the Act and that the casino was not on Indian land, as required by the IGRA. The National Indian Gaming Commission, finding its own enforcement authority limited to violations on Indian lands, refused to take action, noting that "when the Commission obtains information that may indicate a violation of federal, state, or tribal statutes, it is obligated to turn that information over to the appropriate law enforcement officials." After the State of Michigan sued, a federal district court enjoined operation of the casino, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the federal courts had jurisdiction only over allegations of IGRA violations occurring on Indian lands and that the Tribe was immune from suit. The questions presented, according to Michigan, are:

  1. Whether a federal court has jurisdiction to enjoin activity that violates IGRA but takes place outside of Indian lands.
  2. Whether tribal sovereign immunity bars a state from suing in federal court to enjoin a tribe from violating IGRA outside of Indian lands.

The case will likely be argued orally next fall and decided by the end of the Court's 2013-14 term. See, 2013 WL 3155256 (Mem), 81 USLW 3251, U.S., June 24, 2013 (NO. 12-515).

Godfrey & Kahn To Present On Financing Clean Energy to Tribal Housing September 12
John Clancy and Brian Pierson will speak at the Seminole Native Learning Center's Indian Housing Conference at the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, September 12, 2013. The presentation will describe strategies and financing sources to help tribes and Tribally Designated Housing Entities (TDHEs) achieve energy independence consistent with tribes' Seven Generations tradition. While we will discuss wind, biomass and other renewable energy technologies, we will focus in particular on solar energy projects because of their special suitability for housing. We will describe how tribes and TDHEs can partner with developers who, by taking advantage of federal investment tax credits, can provide 25-30% of the cost of developing solar systems. We will explain how reduced energy costs and state and federal grants can cover additional portions of development costs and how, after a period of five or six years, the system is fully paid for, leaving the TDHE with nearly cost-free energy in place of environmentally harmful carbon-based energy. Finally, we will discuss development of generation facilities that can power both tribal enterprises and tribal housing and the permissible uses of the Indian Housing Block Grant and other financing sources in connection with such projects.

Registration is free of charge for Native Americans and Those Working Within Indian Country. For more information, visit the NLC website.

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