Supreme Court Rules Indian Law Doesn’t Apply to Controversial Adoption Case

In a 5-4 ruling, Justices found a Native American father had no right to take his daughter from a South Carolina couple

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James Gibbard / Tulsa World / AP

From right: Dusten Brown, his wife Robin Brown and his daughter Veronica Capobianco, 3, at their home in Nowata, Okla., on April 11, 2013.

The Supreme Court weighed in on an emotionally charged custody battle today, ruling 5-4 in favor of a South Carolina couple’s right to reclaim their adopted Native American child.

The couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, raised Veronica, now 3, for 24 months, but South Carolina courts ordered them to surrender the child to the biological father, Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

At play was the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that targeted abusive welfare practices by setting a higher bar for when authorities can remove Native American children from their families. While it did not invalidate ICWA, The Court overturned the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling by saying that the law was irrelevant to this specific case because Brown never had custody of the child.

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Veronica’s biological mother, Christy Maldonado, and Brown broke up before Veronica was born, and, according to the court documents, Maldonado sent Brown a text asking him to choose between paying child support or surrendering parental custody. Brown chose to give up his parental rights.

Maldonado, an Oklahoma resident who is not a member of the Cherokee Nation, then put her child up for adoption. She met with the Capobianco’s and the three agreed to move forward with the adoption.

Brown, who currently lives with Veronica in Oklahoma, reclaimed custody of his biological daughter only after the South Carolina couple submitted adoption papers. When it went to court, Brown invoked ICWA.

In the High Court’s majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito argued against allowing the Cherokee father to play his “trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother’s decision and the child’s best interests.”

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In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the majority opinion for adopting a narrow interpretation of the Act to justify placing the Native American child in the custody of the Capobiancos.

“The majority openly professes its aversion to Congress’ explicitly stated purpose in enacting the statute,” she wrote. “Policy disagreement with Congress’ judgment is not a valid reason for this Court to distort the provisions of the Act.”

The custody battle contributed to an emotional hearing in the courtroom.

“Domestic relations pose the hardest problems for judges,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, who ultimately came down against the biological father, said during oral arguments in April. “If we could appoint King Solomon, who was the first domestic relations judge, as a special master, we would do it. But we can’t.”

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