Supreme Court hears dispute about Native American adoption law

The law is being defended by the Biden administration as well as several Native American tribes. It aims to strengthen tribal connections.

Supreme Court hears dispute about Native American adoption law

Monday's Supreme Court decision resolved a dispute about the legality and validity of decades-old federal requirements giving Native American families priority to adopt Native American kids. This was in response to a challenge by non-Native adoptive parents and the state.

Lower court decisions declaring several key elements of the Indian Child Welfare Actof78 unconstitutional will be reviewed by the justices. The law is being defended by President Joe Biden and several Native American tribes. It aims to strengthen tribal connections by placing Native American kids with their relatives or within their community.


The 1978 law was passed by the United States Congress in response to concerns about child welfare practices that led to the separation of many Native American children from their families via adoption or foster placing. These child-rearing practices were often in non-Native American homes. Tribes and Native American advocacy organizations maintain that the child welfare law helps to preserve their culture, family connections, and heritage.

Federal standards were established for the removal of children from their families and placement them in foster care or adoption. This law also required that preference be given to extended families or other tribe members.

Three couples, Jennifer and Chad Brackeen and Nick and Heather Libretti and Jason and Danielle Clifford, sought to foster or adopt Native American children. Altagracia Socorro Hernandez was the biological child of a Native American child adopted by the Librettis. They filed suit in Texas federal court, along with the states of Texas and Louisiana in 2018.

The plaintiffs claimed that the statute discriminates racially against non-Native Americans and violates the Constitution's Fifth Amendment guarantee for equal protection. They also claim that the statute unconstitutionally directs state agencies' actions in adoption matters. In 2018, a federal judge ruled in favor of the challengers.

The 325-page decision was made by 16 judges on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed Judge's ruling but affirmed invalidation of some parts of the law by a majority vote, or by an equally divided 8-8 margin.

This ruling led to four appeals at the Supreme Court. These were filed by the Biden administration, four Native American tribes, to defend the law and Texas, as well as the adoptive families, challenging certain aspects.

In legal documents, the federal government stated that even though the law had stopped the widespread separation of Native American kids from their families, they were still more likely than other children to be taken away.

Texas stated that the law requires the state to have a child custody system based on race. It also said that the "high numbers of Indian adoptions and foster children" are often a result, not the cause of, the high risk of neglect and violence among Indian children.

The court will hear the case during its next term which starts in October and ends by June 2023.


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