Today, in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the Supreme Court dodged the constitutional flaws of the Indian Child Welfare Act, instead choosing to rely on statutory interpretation to reverse a lower court’s troubling decision. The very first sentence of Justice Alito’s majority opinion hints at one of the underlying constitutional difficulties with ICWA, its assignment of family-law entitlements by race: “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee.” Justice Thomas’s important concurrence points to another reason to doubt the statute’s constitutionality—its ouster of state courts from their traditional supremacy in family law, based on sources of federal authority (such as the Indian Commerce Clause) that have never been recognized as supporting such ouster.
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent has some force in arguing that the majority is departing from the most natural reading of ICWA’s text, as well as Congress’s likely intent, and in particular that it may be casting doubt on some rights of biological, noncustodial Indian fathers that Congress may have intended the law to protect. As Justice Thomas rightly argues, however, today’s ruling makes sense in light of the doctrine of constitutional avoidance, in which the Court construes doubtful laws so as to avoid possible unconstitutionality. Eventually, if not in this case, ICWA’s constitutional difficulties will be back before the Court in a form it can’t evade. My April coverage of the case in Reason is here; background at SCOTUSBlog, Overlawyered, and RadioLab.