In a long (300+ pages!) and divided opinion, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals late Tuesday upheld a federal district court ruling that found the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) unconstitutional on a variety of legal grounds. Although the court also overturned important parts of the trial court’s decision, the ruling signals a major victory for Native American children who are denied crucial legal protections thanks to ICWA. We filed several briefs in support of the plaintiffs in the case.
Passed in 1978, ICWA was intended to redress wrongful actions by state and federal agencies that often took Native children away from their families without good reason. But despite these good intentions, ICWA today often stands in the way of Native parents and of state child welfare agencies that are trying to protect Native kids from abuse and neglect. And because ICWA applies to “Indian children”—which it defines based on biology—it violates constitutional rules that prohibit the government from discriminating based on race.
ICWA also intrudes on the authority of states in unconstitutional ways. Unlike other federal Indian laws, ICWA applies to children based on their biological ancestry, regardless of where they live, and even if those kids are not tribal members. And it forces state officials to obey a separate, less protective set of rules even when applying statechild-safety laws. This means “Indian children” must be more abused and for longer before state child protection agencies can come to their aid. And ICWA effectively prohibits the adoption of Indian children by adults of other races, even where birth parents agree to the adoption. ICWA even bars Native parents from taking the steps necessary to protect their own children.
In Tuesday’s decision, in a case called Brackeen, the Fifth Circuit was equally divided on a number of important constitutional issues, resulting in a complex set of decisions that in important respects upheld a 2018 trial court decision that declared ICWA unconstitutional. When such equal divisions happen, the result is a “non-precedential” ruling that upholds the trial court’s decision but doesn’t establish a rule for future cases. Here, the court was equally divided on some issues, but found common ground on others.
First, the bad news. The majority of the court held that Congress had power to adopt ICWA under the Constitution’s “commerce clause,” and that the fact that ICWA is triggered by a child’s biological ancestry does not violate constitutional rules against racial discrimination. In the process of making this ruling, the court expanded the reach of federal Indian laws in some truly astonishing ways, which I’ll discuss more below. It also held that the fact that ICWA allows tribes to write rules that override state law does not violate the “nondelegation doctrine” (a legal theory that bars Congress from giving lawmaking authority to private entities). And it addressed several other important legal issues too complex to get into here.
But the judges were unable to agree on whether two other provisions of ICWA are constitutional. These are rules that require that Indian children be adopted by “other Indian families” instead of adults of other races, and that require Indian children in foster care to be placed in “Indian” foster homes, regardless of tribal differences. Since the judges couldn’t agree on those points, the trial court ruling declaring these parts of ICWA unconstitutional remains in place.Read the rest of this post →