490 U.S. 30 (1989), 87-980, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield

Docket Nº:No. 87-980
Citation:490 U.S. 30, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29, 57 U.S.L.W. 4409
Party Name:Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield
Case Date:April 03, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

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490 U.S. 30 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29, 57 U.S.L.W. 4409

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians



No. 87-980

United States Supreme Court

April 3, 1989

Argued January 11, 1989



On the basis of extensive evidence indicating that large numbers of Indian children were being separated from their families and tribes and were being placed in non-Indian homes through state adoption, foster care, and parental rights termination proceedings, and that this practice caused serious problems for the children, their parents, and their tribes, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), which, inter alia, gives tribal courts exclusive jurisdiction over custody proceedings involving an Indian child "who resides or is domiciled within" a tribe's reservation. This case involves the status of twin illegitimate babies, whose parents were enrolled members of appellant Tribe and residents and domiciliaries of its reservation in Neshoba County, Mississippi. After the twins' births in Harrison County, some 200 miles from the reservation, and their parents' execution of consent-to-adoption forms, they were adopted in that county's Chancery Court by the appellees Holyfield, who were non-Indian. That court subsequently overruled appellant's motion to vacate the adoption decree, which was based on the assertion that, under the ICWA exclusive jurisdiction was vested in appellant's tribal court. The Supreme Court of Mississippi affirmed, holding, among other things, that the twins were not "domiciled" on the reservation under state law, in light of the Chancery Court's findings (1) that they had never been physically present there, and (2) that they were "voluntarily surrendered" by their parents, who went to some efforts to see that they were born outside the reservation and promptly arranged for their adoption. Therefore, the court said, the twins' domicile was in Harrison County, [109 S.Ct. 1599] and the Chancery Court properly exercised jurisdiction over the adoption proceedings.

Held: The twins were "domiciled" on the Tribe's reservation within the meaning of the ICWA's exclusive tribal jurisdiction provision, and the Chancery Court was, accordingly, without jurisdiction to enter the adoption decree. Pp. 42-54.

(a) Although the ICWA does not define "domicile," Congress clearly intended a uniform federal law of domicile for the ICWA, and did not consider the definition of the word to be a matter of state law. The ICWA's purpose was, in part, to make clear that, in certain situations, the state courts did not have jurisdiction over child custody proceedings. In fact,

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the statutory congressional findings demonstrate that Congress perceived the States and their courts as partly responsible for the child separation problem it intended to correct. Thus, it is most improbable that Congress would have intended to make the scope of the statute's key jurisdictional provision subject to definition by state courts as a matter of state law. Moreover, Congress could hardly have intended the lack of nationwide uniformity that would result from state law definitions of "domicile," whereby different rules could apply from time to time to the same Indian child simply as a result of his or her being moved across state lines. Pp. 43-47.

(b) The generally accepted meaning of the term "domicile" applies under the ICWA to the extent it is not inconsistent with the objectives of the statute. In the absence of a statutory definition, it is generally assumed that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used, in light of the statute's object and policy. Well settled common law principles provide that the domicile of minors, who generally are legally incapable of forming the requisite intent to establish a domicile, is determined by that of their parents, which has traditionally meant the domicile of the mother in the case of illegitimate children. Thus, since the domicile of the twins' mother (as well as their father) has been, at all relevant times, on appellant's reservation, the twins were also domiciled there even though they have never been there. This result is not altered by the fact that they were "voluntarily surrendered" for adoption. Congress enacted the ICWA because of concerns going beyond the wishes of individual parents, finding that the removal of Indian children from their cultural setting seriously impacts on long-term tribal survival, and has a damaging social and psychological impact on many individual Indian children. These concerns demonstrate that Congress could not have intended to enact a rule of domicile that would permit individual Indian parents to defeat the ICWA's jurisdictional scheme simply by giving birth and placing the child for adoption off the reservation. Pp. 47-53.

511 So.2d 918, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 54.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal requires us to construe the provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act that establish exclusive tribal jurisdiction over child custody proceedings involving Indian children domiciled on the tribe's reservation.



The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), 92 Stat. 3069, 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1963, was the product of rising concern in the mid-1970's over the consequences to Indian children, Indian families, and Indian tribes of abusive child welfare practices that resulted in the separation of large numbers of Indian children from their families and tribes through adoption or foster care placement, usually in non-Indian homes. Senate oversight hearings in 1974 yielded numerous examples, statistical data, and expert testimony documenting what one witness called "[t]he wholesale removal of Indian children from their homes, . . . the most tragic aspect of Indian life today." Indian Child Welfare Program, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 93d Cong., 2d Sess., 3 (statement of William Byler) (hereinafter 1974 Hearings). Studies undertaken by the Association on American Indian Affairs in 1969 and 1974, and presented in the Senate hearings, showed that 25 to 35% of all Indian children had been separated from their families and placed in adoptive families, foster care, or institutions. Id.

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at 15; see also H.R.Rep. No. 95-1386, p. 9 (1978) (hereinafter House Report). Adoptive placements counted significantly in this total: in the State of Minnesota, for example, one in eight Indian children under the age of 18 was in an adoptive home, and, during the year 1971-1972, nearly one in every four infants under one year of age was placed for adoption. The adoption rate of Indian children was eight times that of non-Indian children. Approximately 90% of the Indian placements were in non-Indian homes. 1974 Hearings, at 75-83. A number of witnesses also testified to the serious adjustment problems encountered by such children during adolescence,1 as well as the impact of the adoptions on Indian parents and the tribes themselves. See generally 1974 Hearings.

Further hearings, covering much the same ground, were held during 1977 and 1978 on the bill that became the

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ICWA.2 While much of the testimony again focused on the harm to Indian parents and their children who were involuntarily separated by decisions of local welfare authorities, there was also considerable emphasis on the impact on the tribes themselves of the massive removal of their children. For example, Mr. Calvin Isaac, Tribal Chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and representative of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association, testified as follows:

Culturally, the chances of Indian survival are significantly reduced if our children, the only real means for the transmission of the tribal heritage, are to be [109 S.Ct. 1601] raised in non-Indian homes and denied exposure to the ways of their People. Furthermore, these practices seriously undercut the tribes' ability to continue as self-governing communities. Probably in no area is it more important that tribal sovereignty be respected than in an area as socially and culturally determinative as family relationships.

1978 Hearings at 193. See also id. at 62.3 Chief Isaac also summarized succinctly what numerous witnesses saw as the principal reason for the high rates of removal of Indian children:

One of the most serious failings of the present system is that Indian children are removed from the custody of their natural parents by nontribal government authorities who have no basis for intelligently evaluating the cultural and social premises underlying Indian home life

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and childrearing. Many of the individuals who decide the fate of our children are, at best, ignorant of our cultural values, and, at worst, contemptful of the Indian way and convinced that removal, usually to a non-Indian household or institution, can only benefit an Indian child.

Id. at 191-192.4

The congressional findings that were incorporated into the ICWA reflect these sentiments. The Congress found:

(3) that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children . . . ;

(4) that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies, and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian...

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