03 August 2013

Law in Plain English: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Update (8/18/13): For a full timeline of events in this case, see here.

For a previous discussion of this case, see here.

SCOTUSblogAdoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Matt and Melanie Capobianco with Veronica.
Argument: Apr 16, 2013 (Tr.) (Aud.)

Discussion: A South Carolina couple 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.

Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether a non-custodial parent could 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 the ICWA defined “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.

Holding: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and remanded for further proceedings. The Court ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act does not bar termination of the biological father's paternal rights because it applied to a child who was removed--the ICWA’s primary goal is not implicated when an Indian child’s adoption is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights. In other words, the provisions were not designed to apply to the circumstances presented by this case. As a result, the order returning the baby to the biological father was thrown out. It will be the job of the South Carolina Supreme Court to decide custody--although without the ICWA in the way, it seems likely that the adoptive parents will regain custody of the girl.

Update (6/29/13): In an order of June 28th, Justice Alito wrote that the mandate to the South Carolina Supreme Court will issue on July 5th (normally, such mandates happen 25 days after the original decision; the Capobiancos had applied with the Court for a faster timetime and Justice Alito agreed).

Update (7/17/13): In a 3-2 decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court  remanded the case to the Family Court for the prompt entry of an order approving and finalizing Adoptive Couple's adoption of Baby Girl, and thereby terminating Birth Father's parental rights. As a result, the court ruled that custody of Baby Girl shall be transferred to Adoptive Couple.

Update (7/24/13): In a 3-2 decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered the adoption to be finalized.

Update (7/26/13): Refusing to give up, the birth father filed an application for a stay of the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Update (7/30/13): On Wednesday, a family court in Charleston, S.C., plans to have a hearing Wednesday to decide how - not if - to transfer custody of Baby Veronica back to her adoptive parents.

Update (7/30/13): Attorneys for Adoptive Couple filed a response to the birth father's application for a stay of the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Update (8/2/13): The Supreme Court denied the birth father's application for a stay.

Update (8/7/13): A South Carolina family court issued an enforcement order which found that Dusten Brown (the birth father) violated the terms of a previous court order by not showing up at the appointed time and place via the terms of the transition plan (Brown himself need not have shown up; Veronica's grandparents or other guardians could have done so). As a result, the court canceled the transition plan and ordered immediate custody of Baby Veronica to the Capobiancos. It also referred the matter to the Charleston County Solicitor's Office, the United States Attorney's Office, and Brown's commanding officer (Brown is in the Army National Guard).

Update (8/18/13): For a full timeline of events in this case, see here.
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