WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices appeared torn on Tuesday over whether a federal law intended to protect Indian families allowed a Cherokee father to take his daughter from the adoptive parents who had been raising her.
The high court heard oral arguments in a case involving an Oklahoma man who is a Cherokee Nation citizen and his biological daughter, placed for adoption at birth by the girl's mother after the father refused to provide financial support.
The parents were not married, and Dusten Brown, the father, relinquished his parental rights by text message to the mother, though he later said he did so thinking the child would be raised by the mother and not put up for adoption.
About the case
The child, now 3, was adopted by a South Carolina couple.
However, Brown, of Nowata, challenged the adoption with the aid of the Cherokee Nation and won custody of the girl because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1978.
The act was intended to keep Indian children with their parents or extended families at a time when many of those children were being removed from their homes by state agencies and others and placed with non-Indian parents.
The South Carolina couple that had raised the girl for more than two years appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court after losing custody in their home state courts.
Attorney Lisa Blatt, arguing for the South Carolina parents, told the justices on Tuesday that Brown had no legal rights in South Carolina and that the federal law was intended to prevent the breakup of Indian families.
“There is no Indian family here,” Blatt said, adding that there had been no legal relationship between the child and the birth father to break up.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Blatt's interpretation of the law rested on the assumption that the father had to have custody of the child for the family to be broken up.
“I don't know why that should be true,” he said.