Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield/Dissent Stevens

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Dissenting Opinion

Justice STEVENS, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice KENNEDY join, dissenting.

The parents of these twin babies unquestionably expressed their intention to have the state court exercise jurisdiction over them. J.B. gave birth to the twins at a hospital 200 miles from the reservation, even though a closer hospital was available. Both parents gave their written advance consent to the adoption and, when the adoption was later challenged by the Tribe, they reaffirmed their desire that the Holyfields adopt the two children. As the Mississippi Supreme Court found, "the parents went to some efforts to prevent the children from being placed on the reservation as the mother arranged for their birth and adoption in Gulfport Memorial Hospital, Harrison County, Mississippi." 511 So.2d 918, 921 (1987). Indeed, Appellee Vivian Holyfield appears before us today, urging that she be allowed to retain custody of B.B. and G.B.

Because J.B.'s domicile is on the reservation and the children are eligible for membership in the Tribe, the Court today closes the state courthouse door to her. I agree with the Court that Congress intended a uniform federal law of domicile for the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), 92 Stat. 3069, 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1963, and that domicile should be defined with reference to the objectives of the congressional scheme. "To ascertain [the term's] meaning we . . . consider the Congressional history of the Act, the situation with reference to which it was enacted, and the existing judicial precedents, with which Congress may be taken to have been familiar in at least a general way." District of Columbia v. Murphy, 314 U.S. 441, 449, 62 S.Ct. 303, 307, 86 L.Ed. 329 (1941). I cannot agree, however, with the cramped definition the Court gives that term. To preclude parents domiciled on a reservation from deliberately invoking the adoption procedures of state court, the Court gives "domicile" a meaning that Congress could not have intended and distorts the delicate balance between individual rights and group rights recognized by the ICWA.

The ICWA was passed in 1978 in response to congressional findings that "an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies," and that "the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction ov r Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families." 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901(4), (5) (emphasis added). The Act is thus primarily addressed to the unjustified removal of Indian children from their families through the application of standards that inadequately recognized the distinct Indian culture. [1]

The most important provisions of the ICWA are those setting forth minimum standards for the placement of Indian children by state courts and providing procedural safeguards to insure that parental rights are protected. [2] The Act provides that any party seeking to effect a foster care placement of, or involuntary termination of parental rights to, an Indian child must establish by stringent standards of proof that efforts have been made to prevent the breakup of the Indian family, and that the continued custody of the child by the parent is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child. §§ 1912(d), (e), (f). Each party to the proceeding has a right to examine all reports and documents filed with the court, and an indigent parent or custodian has the right to appointment of counsel. §§ 1912(b), (c). In the case of a voluntary termination, the ICWA provides that consent is valid only if given after the terms and consequences of the consent have been fully explained, may be withdrawn at any time up to the final entry of a decree of termination or adoption, and even then may be collaterally attacked on the grounds that it was obtained through fraud or duress. § 1913. Finally, because the Act protects not only the rights of the parents, but also the interests of the tribe and the Indian children, the Act sets forth criteria for adoptive, foster care, and preadoptive placements that favor the Indian child's extended family or tribe, and that can be altered by resolution of the tribe. § 1915.

The Act gives Indian tribes certain rights, not to restrict the rights of parents of Indian children, but to complement and help effect them. The Indian tribe may petition to transfer an action in state court to the tribal court, but the Indian parent may veto the transfer. § 1911(b). [3] The Act provides for a tribal right of notice and intervention in involuntary proceedings but not in voluntary ones. §§ 1911(c), 1912(a). [4] Finally, the tribe may petition the court to set aside a parental termination action upon a showing that the provisions of the ICWA that are designed to protect parents and Indian children have been violated. § 1914. [5]

While the Act's substantive and procedural provisions effect a major change in state child custody proceedings, its jurisdictional provision is designed primarily to preserve tribal sovereignty over the domestic relations of tribe members and to confirm a developing line of cases which held that the tribe's exclusive jurisdiction could not be defeated by the temporary presence of an Indian child off the reservation. The legislative history indicates that Congress did not intend "to oust the States of their traditional jurisdiction over Indian children falling within their geographic limits." House Report, at 19, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7541; Wamser, Child Welfare Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978: A New Mexico Focus, 10 N.M.L.Rev. 413, 416 (1980). The apparent intent of Congress was to overrule such decisions as that in In re Cantrell, 159 Mont. 66, 495 P.2d 179 (1972), in which the State placed an Indian child, who had lived on a reservation with his mother, in a foster home only three days after he left the reservation to accompany his father on a trip. Jones, Indian Child Welfare: A Jurisdictional Approach, 21 Ariz.L.Rev. 1123, 1129 (1979). Congress specifically approved a series of cases in which the state courts declined jurisdiction over Indian children who were wards of the tribal court, In re Adoption of Buehl, 87 Wash.2d 649, 555 P.2d 1334 (1976); Wakefield v. Little Light, 276 Md. 33, 347 A.2d 228 (1975), or whose parents were temporarily residing off the reservation, Wisconsin Potowatomies of Hannahville Indian Community v. Houston, 393 F.Supp. 719 (WD Mich.1973), but exercised jurisdiction over Indian children who had never lived on a reservation and whose Indian parents were not then residing on a reservation, In re Greybull, 23 Or.App. 674, 543 P.2d 1079 (1975); see House Report, at 21, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7543. [6] It did not express any disapproval of decisions such as that of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in United States ex rel. Cobell v. Cobell, 503 F.2d 790 (9th Cir.1974), cert. denied, 421 U.S. 999, 95 S.Ct. 2396, 44 L.Ed.2d 666 (1975), which indicated that a Montana state court could exercise jurisdiction over an Indian child custody dispute because the parents, "by voluntarily invoking the state court's jurisdiction for divorce purposes, . . . clearly submitted the question of their children's custody to the judgment of the Montana state courts." 503 F.2d, at 795 (emphasis deleted).

The Report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, an early proponent of the ICWA, makes clear the limited purposes that the term "domicile" was intended to serve:

"Domicile is a legal concept that does not depend exclusively on one's physical location at any one given moment in time, rather it is based on the apparent intention of permanent residency. Many Indian families move back and forth from a reservation dwelling to border communities or even to distant communities, depending on employment and educational opportunities. . . . In these situations, where family ties to the reservation are strong, but the child is temporarily off the reservation, a fairly strong legal argument can be made for tribal court jurisdiction." Report on Federal, State, and Tribal Jurisdiction 86 (Comm.Print 1976). [7]

Although parents of Indian children are shielded from the exercise of state jurisdiction when they are temporarily off the reservation, the Act also reflects a recognition that allowing the tribe to defeat the parents' deliberate choice of jurisdiction would be conducive neither to the best interests of the child nor to the stability and security of Indian tribes and families. Section 1911(b), providing for the exercise of concurrent jurisdiction by state and tri al courts when the Indian child is not domiciled on the reservation, gives the Indian parents a veto to prevent the transfer of a state-court action to tribal court. [8] "By allowing the Indian parents to 'choose' the forum that will decide whether to sever the parent-child relationship, Congress promotes the security of Indian families by allowing the Indian parents to defend in the court system that most reflects the parents' familial standards." Jones, 21 Ariz.L.Rev., at 1141. As Mr. Calvin Isaac, Tribal Chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, stated in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and Public Lands with respect to a different provision:

"The ultimate responsibility for child welfare rests with the parents and we would not support legislation which interfered with that basic relationship." Hearings on S. 1214 before the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and Public Lands of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 95th Cong., 2d Sess., 62 (1978). [9]

If J.B. and W.J. had established a domicile off the reservation, the state courts would have been required to give effect to their choice of jurisdiction; there should not be a different result when the parents have not changed their own domicile, but have expressed an unequivocal intent to establish a domicile for their children off the reservation. The law of abandonment, as enunciated by the Mississippi Supreme Court in this case, does not defeat, but serves the purposes, of the Act. An abandonment occurs when a parent deserts a child and places the child with another with an intent to relinquish all parental rights and obligations. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 22, Comment e (1971) (hereinafter Restatement); In re Adoption of Halloway, 732 P.2d 962, 966 (Utah 1986). If a child is abandoned by his mother, he takes on the d micile of his father; if the child is abandoned by his father, he takes on the domicile of his mother. Restatement § 22, Comment e; 25 Am.Jur.2d, Domicil § 69 (1966). If the child is abandoned by both parents, he takes on the domicile of a person other than the parents who stands in loco parentis to him. In re Adoption of Halloway, supra, at 966; In re Estate of Moore, 68 Wash.2d 792, 796, 415 P.2d 653, 656 (1966); Harlan v. Industrial Accident Comm'n, 194 Cal. 352, 228 P. 654 (1924); Restatement § 22, Comment i ; cf. In re Guardianship of D.L.L. and C.L.L., 291 N.W.2d 278, 282 (S.D.1980). [10] To be effective, the intent to abandon or the actual physical abandonment must be shown by clear and convincing evidence. In re Adoption of Halloway, supra, at 966; C.S. v. Smith, 483 S.W.2d 790, 793 (Mo.App.1972). [11]

When an Indian child is temporarily off the reservation, but has not been abandoned to a person off the reservation, the tribe has an interest in exclusive jurisdiction. The ICWA expresses the intent that exclusive tribal jurisdiction is not so frail that it should be defeated as soon as the Indian child steps off the reservation. Similarly, when the child is abandoned by one parent to a person off the reservation, the tribe and the other parent domiciled on the reservation may still have an interest in the exercise of exclusive jurisdiction. That interest is protected by the rule that a child abandoned by one parent takes on the domicile of the other. But when an Indian child is deliberately abandoned by both parents to a person off the reservation, no purpose of the ICWA is served by closing the state courthouse door to them. The interests of the parents, the Indian child, and the tribe in preventing the unwarranted removal of Indian children from their families and from the reservation are protected by the Act's substantive and procedural provisions. In addition, if both parents have intentionally invoked the jurisdiction of the state court in an action involving a non-Indian, no interest in tribal self-governance is implicated. See McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n, 411 U.S. 164, 173, 93 S.Ct. 1257, 1263, 36 L.Ed.2d 129 (1973); Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 219-220, 79 S.Ct. 269, 270-271, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959); Felix v. Patrick, 145 U.S. 317, 332, 12 S.Ct. 862, 867, 36 L.Ed. 719 (1892).

The interpretation of domicile adopted by the Court requires the custodian o an Indian child who is off the reservation to haul the child to a potentially distant tribal court unfamiliar with the child's present living conditions and best interests. Moreover, it renders any custody decision made by a state court forever suspect, susceptible to challenge at any time as void for having been entered in the absence of jurisdiction. [12] Finally, it forces parents of Indian children who desire to invoke state-court jurisdiction to establish a domicile off the reservation. Only if the custodial parent has the wealth and ability to establish a domicile off the reservation will the parent be able to use the processes of state court. I fail to see how such a requirement serves the paramount congressional purpose of "promot[ing] the stability and security of Indian tribes and families." 25 U.S.C. § 1902.

The Court concludes its opinion with the observation that whatever anguish is suffered by the Indian children, their natural parents, and their adoptive parents because of its decision today is a result of their failure to initially follow the provisions of the ICWA. Ante, at 53-54. By holding that parents who are domiciled on the reservation cannot voluntarily avail themselves of the adoption procedures of state court and that all such proceedings will be void for lack of jurisdiction, however, the Court establishes a rule of law that is virtually certain to ensure that similar anguish will be suffered by other families in the future. Because that result is not mandated by the language of the ICWA and is contrary to its purposes, I respectfully dissent.


^1  The House Report found that "Indian families face vastly greater risks of involuntary separation than are typical of our society as a whole." H.R.Rep. No. 95-1386, p. 9 (1978) (hereinafter House Report), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, p. 7531. The Senate Report similarly states that the Act was motivated by "reports that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian children were being separated from their natural parents through the actions of nontribal government agencies." S.Rep. No. 95-597, p. 11 (1977). See also 124 Cong.Rec. 12532 (1978) (remarks of Rep. Udall) ("The record developed by the Policy Review Commission, by the Senate Interior Committee in the 94th Congress;

and by the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and our own Interior Committee in the 95th Congress has disclosed what almost amounts to a callous raid on Indian children. Indian children are removed from their parents and families by State agencies for the most specious of reasons in proceedings foreign to the Indian parents"); id., at 38102 (remarks of Rep. Udall) ("Studies have revealed that about 25 percent of all Indian children are removed from their homes and placed in some foster care or adoptive home or institution"); id., at 38103 (remarks of Rep. Lagomarsino) ("For Indians generally and tribes in particular, the continued wholesale removal of their children by nontribal government and private agencies constitutes a serious threat to their existence as ongoing, self-governing communities"); Hearing on S. 1214 before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1977) ("It appears that for decades Indian parents and their children have been at the mercy of arbitrary or abusive action of local, State, Federal and private agency officials. Unwarranted removal of children from their homes is common in Indian communities").

^2  "The purpose of the bill (H.R. 12533), introduced by Mr. Udall et al., is to protect the best interests f Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by establishing minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes or institutions which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture and by providing for assistance to Indian tribes and organizations in the operation of child and family service programs." House Report, at 8 (footnote omitted), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7530. See also 124 Cong.Rec. 38102 (1978) (remarks of Rep. Udall) ("[The Act] clarifies the allocation of jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings between Indian tribes and the States. More importantly, it establishes minimum Federal standards and procedural safeguards to protect Indian families when faced with child custody proceedings against them in State agencies or courts").

^3  The statute provides in part:

"(b) Transfer of proceedings; declination by tribal court

"In any State court proceeding for the foster care placement of, or termination of parental rights to, an Indian child not domiciled or residing within the reservation of the Indian child's tribe, the court, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, shall transfer such proceeding to the jurisdiction of the tribe, absent objection by either parent, upon the petition of either parent or the Indian custodian or the Indian child's tribe: Provided, That such transfer shall be subject to declination by the tribal court of such tribe." 25 U.S.C. § 1911.

^4  See 44 Fed.Reg. 67584, 67586 (1979) ("The Act mandates a tribal right of notice and intervention in involuntary proceedings but not in voluntary ones").

^5  Significantly, the tribe cannot set aside a termination of parental rights on the ground that the adoptive placement provisions of § 1915, favoring placement with the tribe, have not been followed.

^6  None of the cases cited approvingly by Congress involved a deliberate abandonment. In Wakefield v. Little Light, 276 Md. 333, 347 A.2d 228 (1975), the court upheld exclusive tribal jurisdiction where it was clear that there was no abandonment. In Wisconsin Potowatomies of Hannahville Indian Community v. Houston, 393 F.Supp. 719 (WD Mich.1973), there was no abandonment, the children had lived on the reservation and were members of the Indian Tribe, and the children's clothing and toys were at a home on the reservation that continued to be available to them. Finally, in In re Adoption of Buehl, 87 Wash.2d 649, 555 P.2d 1334 (1976), the child was a ward of the tribal court and an enrolled member of the Tribe.

^7  In a letter to the House of Representatives, the Department of Justice explained its understanding that the provision was addressed to the involuntary termination of parental rights in tribal members by state agencies unaware of exclusive tribal jurisdiction:

"As you may be aware, the courts have consistently recognized that tribal governments have exclusive jurisdiction over the domestic relationships of tribal members located on reservations, unless a State has assumed concurrent jurisdiction pursuant to Federal legislation such as Public Law 83-280. It is our understanding that this legal principle is often ignored by local welfare organizations and foster homes in cases where they believe Indian children have been neglected, and that S.1214 is designed to remedy this, and to define Indian rights in such cases." House Report, at 35, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7558.

^8  The explanation of this subsection in the House Report reads as follows:

"Subsection (b) directs a State court, having jurisdiction over an Indian child custody proceeding to transfer such proceeding, absent good cause to the contrary, to the appropriate tribal court upon the petition of the parents or the Indian tribe. Either parent is given the right to veto such transfer. The subsection is intended to permit a State court to apply a modified doctrine of forum non conveniens, in appropriate cases, to insure that the rights of the child as an Indian, the Indian parents or custodian, and the tribe are fully protected." Id., at 21, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7544.

In commenting on the provision, the Department of Justice suggested that the section should be clarified to make it perfectly clear that a state court need not surrender jurisdiction of a child custody proceeding if the Indian parent objected. The Department of Justice letter stated:

"Section 101(b) should be amended to prohibit clearly the transfer of a child placement proceeding to a tribal court when any parent or child over the age of 12 objects to the transfer." Id., at 32, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, at 7554.

Although the specific suggestion made by the Department of Justice was not in fact implemented, it is noteworthy that there is nothing in the legislative history to suggest that the recommended change was in any way inconsistent with any of the purposes of the statute.

^9  Chief Isaac elsewhere expressed a similar concern for the rights of parents with reference to another provision. See Hearing, supra n. 1, at 158 (statement on behalf of National Tribal Chairmen's Association) ("We believe the tribe should receive notice in all such cases but where the child is neither a resident nor domiciliary of the reservation intervention should require the consent of the natural parents or the blood relative in whose custody the child has been left by the natural parents. It seems there is a great potential in the provisions of section 101(c) for infringing parental wishes and rights").

^10  The authority of a State to exercise jurisdiction over a child in a child custody dispute when the child is physically present in a State and has been abandoned is also recognized by federal statute. See Parental Kidnaping Prevention Act of 1980, 94 Stat. 3569, 28 U.S.C. § 1738A(c)(2); see also Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, 9 U.L.A. § 3 (1988).

^11  The Court suggests that there could be no legally effective abandonment because the parents consented to termination of their parental rights before a judge of the state court and not a tribal court judge. Ante, at 51, n. 26. That suggestion ignores the findings of the State Supreme Court that the natural parents did virtually everything they could do to abandon the children to persons outside the reservation: "[T]he Indian twins have never resided outside of Harrison County, Mississippi, and were voluntarily surrendered and legally abandoned by the natural parents to the adoptive parents, and it is undisputed that the parents went to some efforts to prevent the children from being placed on the reservation as the mother arranged for their birth and adoption in Gulfport Memorial Hospital, Harrison County, Mississippi." 511 So.2d 918, 921 (1987). In any event, even a consent to adoption that does not meet statutory requirements may be effective to constitute an abandonment and change the minor's domicile. See Wilson v. Pierce, 14 Utah 2d 317, 321, 383 P.2d 925, 927 (1963); H. Clark, Law of Domestic Relations in the United States 633 (1968).

^12  The facts of In re Adoption of Halloway, 732 P.2d 962 (Utah 1986), which the Court cites approvingly, ante, at 52-53, vividly illustrate the problem. In that case, the mother, a member of an Indian Tribe in New Mexico, voluntarily abandoned an Indian child to the custody of the child's maternal aunt off the reservation with the knowledge that the child would be placed for adoption in Utah. The mother learned of the adoption two weeks after the child left the reservation and did not object and, two months later, she executed a consent to adoption. Nevertheless, some two years after the petition for adoption was filed, the Indian Tribe intervened in the proceeding and set aside the adoption. The Tribe argued successfully that regardless of whether the Indian parent consented to it, the adoption was void because she resided on the reservation and thus the tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction. Although the decision in Halloway, and the Court's approving reference to it, may be colored somewhat by the fact that the mother in that case withdrew her consent (a fact which would entitle her to relief even if there were only concurrent jurisdiction, see 25 U.S.C. § 1913(c)), the rule set forth by the majority contains no such limitation. As the Tribe acknowledged at oral argument, any adoption of an Indian child effected through a state court will be susceptible of challenge by the Indian tribe no matter how old the child and how long it has lived with its adoptive parents. Tr. of Oral Arg. 15.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).