Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Reversing Lower Ruling, Federal Court Upholds Indian Child Welfare Act

The appeals court overturned a 2018 decision from a federal district judge who ruled that the law, which gives adoption placement preference to Native American tribes, was unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton challenged the law in 2017.

By Emma Platoff

In a blow to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, a federal appeals court on Friday reversed a lower court’s October 2018 ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the Indian Child Welfare Act, a decades-old federal law that aims to keep Native American families together.

Arguing that the law “elevates a child's race over their best interest,” Texas sued in October 2017 on behalf of a non-Native couple from Forth Worth that wanted to adopt a Native American toddler they had fostered for more than a year, but were rebuffed during state adoption proceedings. ICWA gives placement preference in adoption cases to biological family members, other members of the child’s tribe and other Native American families. Passed in 1978, the law was Congress’ attempt to keep native families together at a time when as many as one-third of tribal children were being forcibly removed from their biological families through state welfare proceedings.

The couple, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, have since successfully adopted the child, but their challenge to the law persisted. Last fall, a federal judge in North Texas ruled that the law violates constitutional principles of equal protection because it “uses ancestry as a proxy for race” and does not meet the high, “strict scrutiny” burden required for laws that rely on racial classifications.

But the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this week overturned that assessment, citing the federal government’s historical obligations to Native tribes in ruling that the law’s definition of “Indian child” should be interpreted as a “political classification” as opposed to a racial one.

The law and associated rules are “constitutional because they are based on a political classification that is rationally related to the fulfillment of Congress’s unique obligation toward Indians,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Dennis wrote for the three-judge panel. Dennis pointed to a large body of laws intended to protect Native American communities: “If these laws, derived from historical relationships and explicitly designed to help only Indians, were deemed invidious racial discrimination, an entire Title of the United States Code (25 U.S.C.) would be effectively erased and the solemn commitment of the Government toward the Indians would be jeopardized,” Dennis wrote, quoting an older case.

A coalition of tribal leaders, who have watched the case carefully, cheered the appeals court’s ruling, which they said “reaffirmed what we already knew: the Indian Child Welfare Act is constitutional and serves the best interests of children and families.”

“We are pleased that the court followed decades of legal precedent in its ruling, preserving a law that protects Indian children and allows them to retain their identity by staying within their families and tribal communities,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Morongo Band of Mission Indians Chairman Robert Martin, Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill and Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp said in a joint statement. The four tribes had intervened in the case to defend the law. The law, they said, “ensures that we have a process in place focusing first and foremost on the welfare and safety of children.”

An additional 325 tribes and 57 tribal organizations submitted friend-of-the-court briefs backing the law.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not immediately answer questions about whether it plans to appeal.

Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?