06 April 2013

Why did the Supreme Court agree to hear Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl?

On April 16, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. This won't be the most newsworthy case of the term, but it's personally very close to me as an adopted child. I have been following this case for a while and am very interested in the outcome.

This case is about a South Carolina couple who adopted the daughter of a young woman who was not a tribal member, but the child was considered to be an Indian because of her father’s tribal membership.  The couple had to give up the child after raising her for two years, because the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the federal law took priority over state law. The questions here are (1) whether a non-custodial parent can invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901-63, to block an adoption voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law; and (2) whether ICWA defines “parent” in 25 U.S.C. § 1903(9) to include an unwed biological father who has not complied with state law rules to attain legal status as a parent.

There are three criteria that guide what cases the Supreme Court selects, from Rule 12:
The following, al­though neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court’s discretion, indicate the character of the reasons the Court considers:  
(a) a United States court of appeals has entered a deci­sion in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter; has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with a decision by a state court of last resort; or has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings, or sanctioned such a de­parture by a lower court, as to call for an exercise of this Court’s supervisory power; 
(b) a state court of last resort has decided an impor­tant federal question in a way that conflicts with the decision of another state court of last resort or of a United States court of appeals;  
(c) a state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court, or has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with relevant decisions of this Court.
Option a is the familiar circuit split. This tends to be the most common reason for granting cert. Less common are reviews of state supreme courts.

Even then, the Supreme Court doesn't typically select cases to fix errors, but rather selects cases that represent issues where the Court can clarify a portion of the law as it will apply to future cases with similar factual circumstances. So decisions are often less about the specific parties to a case, and more about how the Court can decide that portion of the law for future cases of a similar nature.

That brings us back to Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. Why did the Supreme Court agree to hear this case?

From a purely strategic look, it would seem very odd to accept this case and then affirm the South Carolina Supreme Court. If this case was the impetus for a split among state court of last resort on interpretations of the ICWA, then I'm not sure why affirming here would make any sense. In fact, just the opposite would seem likely.

If it were only that easy...

Here's a picture of Matt and Melanie Capobianco with Veronica.

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