Pro-Life Priorities Resize

State’s Authority In Family Law Matters Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

Ketner BornDelivering a strong win for family values, the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl also reinforced a state’s authority in matters of adoption.

Four months after his biological child was adopted, a Cherokee Indian father decided to pursue custody of the child after relinquishing his parental rights.  The dispute made its way to family court in South Carolina where the court granted custody to the father, not based on adoption laws of the state but on the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, again based on the ICWA; thus, the child was taken from her adoptive parents and placed in the home of the biological father, whom she had never met.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 governs the jurisdiction over the removal of Native American children from their families and dictates that state courts must follow its provisions in custody determinations.  It requires that preference be given to a member of the child’s extended family, other members of the Indian child’s tribe, or other Indian families in cases of adoption or foster care.

Under South Carolina law, a biological father who is not married to the mother of his child must consent to an adoption taking place within six months of a child’s birth only if the father lived with the child or the child’s mother for a continuous period of six months preceding the adoption or if the father financially supported the child or shared in the expenses of the mother’s pregnancy. Applied in this case, it was “undisputed” that if Baby Girl had not been 1.2% Cherokee, the biological father would have had no right under the laws of the state to object to the child’s adoption; however, because the father is a member of the Cherokee Nation, the state supreme court believed the state adoption laws to be preempted by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.


The Supreme Court again reaffirmed the principle that domestic relations, including adoptions, are the responsibility of the states.


The U.S. Supreme Court based its decision on the fact that the circumstances of this case did not make it one that the ICWA was intended to cover – namely, the father never had custody of the child and never wanted it; thus, the child was not being “taken away.” Furthermore, there was no Native American adoptive family to give deference to since only the adoptive parents came forward to adopt the child.

Making a separate case, Justice Thomas in his concurrence laid out why the ICWA is unconstitutional due to a state’s authority over adoption proceedings, which he deemed as the ‘virtually exclusive province of the states.’ The South Carolina courts believed their authority to be hamstrung because of the existence of the federal statute, despite the illogical outcome resulting from the statute’s application.

Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl is a sound victory for family values and states’ rights.  The Supreme Court again reaffirmed the principle that domestic relations, including adoptions, are the responsibility of the states.  The Supreme Court also acknowledged that the best interests of children are better determined at the local level rather than in the application of sweeping federal legislation.


Catherine Gayle Thrash, a senior political science student at Samford University, is serving as an intern for the Alabama Policy Institute.  Catherine Gayle is interested in political theory and southern politics and may be contacted at 205.870.9900 or catherinegaylet@alabamapolicy.org.

The Alabama Policy Institute, an independent nonprofit research and education organization, is dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families.

Note: This column is a copyrighted feature distributed free of charge by the Alabama Policy Institute (API). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author(s) and API are properly cited.