Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving tribal courts jurisdiction over the adoption of Indian children reaffirms an identical decision issued two years ago by the Utah Supreme Court in a Utah adoption case.
The court's 6-3 ruling by Justice William Brennan came in a case brought by the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians appealing a state Supreme Court ruling concerning the adoption of Samuel and Megan Holyfield."It is not ours to say whether the trauma that might result from removing these children from their adoptive family should outweigh the interest of the tribe - and perhaps the children themselves - in having them raised as part of the Choctaw community," Brennan wrote. "Rather we must defer to the experience, wisdom and compassion of the (Choctaw) tribal court to fashion an appropriate remedy."
Pat and Dan Carter of Spanish Fork also had to rely on the experience, wisdom and compassion of a tribal court in a custody dispute over Michael Jack Carter, a Navajo child who had been born Jeremiah Halloway. A last-minute agreement with the child's natural mother allowed the child to remain with the Carters under a permanent guardianship arrangement, though they are not officially the boy's adoptive parents.
The Carters adopted the Navajo boy in 1985 after the 2-year-old was brought to Utah by an aunt with the mother's consent. The child had been found wandering the streets of Gallup, N.M., temporarily abandoned by his grandmother.
The Utah Supreme Court invalidated the adoption in 1987, ruling that the Indian Child Welfare Act provides that Indian children are residents of the reservation even if taken off the reservation voluntarily by their parents or guardians.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that since the natural parents of the adopted Choctaw children lived on the reservation, the children's home should also be considered the reservation even though they were never actually there.
Justices John Paul Stevens filed a dissent, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy.
In the Mississippi case, twins were born at a hospital off the reservation and adopted by Orrey and Vivian Holyfield on Jan. 28, 1986. In March 1986, the tribe went to court in an effort to set aside the adoption decree, arguing the adoption violated federal law and the children are full-blooded Choctaws who should be brought up on the reservation in Philadelphia, Miss.
Unlike the Utah case, both the natural and adoptive parents opposed the appeal by the Choctaw Indian tribe. In the Utah case, the child's natural mother sought to have the boy returned to her custody.
Under an agreement worked out in the Utah case, the child will visit his natural mother and learn of Navajo customs.