SCOTUS hears important adoption case

By John H. Helmers, Jr.

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on a difficult adoption case last week. It is somewhat rare for the nation’s highest court to hear family law or adoption cases. The Court accepted the case to define the limits of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal statute. The statue, passed in 1978 , was designed to give children of Native American descent a chance to be raised by a tribal member rather than by a person or couple that had no native American heritage. Regardless of the decision of the case, the facts and outcome are heartbreaking.

In the case, the mother placed a baby girl with a couple seeking to adopt, the Capobiancos. They supported the mother during her final stages of pregnancy and were in the delivery room at the birth. Afterwards, the Capobiancos took the child home and named her Veronica. The biological father learned that Veronica had been placed for adoption and immediately attempted to stop the process. As he was of Native American descent, he was able to invoke the statutory protections of the ICWA. The lower court held that the adoptive parents must return the child to the biological father.

During  the oral arguments, it was apparent that the Justices were deeply conflicted. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that domestic relations cases posed the “hardest problems for judges” and wished that the court could invoke the wisdom of King Solomon who was identified as the “first domestic relations judge” during the oral arguments. The other Justices appeared similarly conflicted. Each judge brought his or her personal perspective to the table, with no clear division between judges that are considered liberal and those considered conservative. Justice Antonin Scalia, the father of nine children himself, stated that the statute favored biological fathers over the best interests of the child. According to the Washington Post and other outlets, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to support the view of conservative Justice Scalia. On the other hand, Chief Justice John Roberts, the adoptive father of two, appeared to lean toward a standard that included a focus on the best interests of the child.

The case will be decided before the end of June 2013. Ultimately, an opinion will be rendered that will affect these families and Veronica, as well as thousands of future adoptions.