Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, No. 87-980

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBRENNAN, 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
Citation490 U.S. 30,104 L.Ed.2d 29,109 S.Ct. 1597
Docket NumberNo. 87-980
Decision Date03 April 1989
PartiesMISSISSIPPI BAND OF CHOCTAW INDIANS, Appellant v. Orrey Curtiss HOLYFIELD, et ux., J.B., Natural Mother and W.J., Natural Father

490 U.S. 30
109 S.Ct. 1597
104 L.Ed.2d 29
MISSISSIPPI BAND OF CHOCTAW INDIANS, Appellant

v.

Orrey Curtiss HOLYFIELD, et ux., J.B., Natural Mother and W.J., Natural Father.

No. 87-980.
Argued Jan. 11, 1989.
Decided April 3, 1989.
Syllabus

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, 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,

Page 31

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 (Miss.1987), 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.

Edwin R. Smith, Meridian, Miss., for appellant.

Page 32

Edward O. Miller, Gulfport, Miss., for appellees.

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.

I
A.

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), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, pp. 7530, 7531. 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

Page 34

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 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

Page 35

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 foster and adoptive homes and institutions; and

"(5) that the States,...

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    • United States
    • Federal Register August 29, 2005
    • August 29, 2005
    ...to legal context within the same state. Moreover, the general rule as set forth in Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989), is ``in the absence of a plain indication to the contrary, * * * Congress when it enacts a statute is not making the application of the fe......
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    • United States
    • Federal Register August 29, 2005
    • August 29, 2005
    ...to legal context within the same state. Moreover, the general rule as set forth in Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989), is ``in the absence of a plain indication to the contrary, * * * Congress when it enacts a statute is not making the application of the fe......
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    • March 31, 2020
    ...home." Comm'r of Internal Revenue v. Swent, 155 F.2d 513, 515 (4th Cir. 1946) ; see also Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 48, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989) ("For adults, domicile is established by physical presence in a place in connection with a certai......
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    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • November 16, 2016
    ...In elemental terms, domicile consists of (1) residence and (2) an intent to remain there. Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield , 490 U.S. 30, 48, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989). In practice, however, the law of domicile has long been one of presumptions. In his Commentaries on ......
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1462 cases
  • Blankenship v. Napolitano, Civil Action No. 2:19-cv-00236
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    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Southern District of West Virginia
    • March 31, 2020
    ...home." Comm'r of Internal Revenue v. Swent, 155 F.2d 513, 515 (4th Cir. 1946) ; see also Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 48, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989) ("For adults, domicile is established by physical presence in a place in connection with a certai......
  • Mason v. Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, P.C., No. 16-2313
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • November 16, 2016
    ...In elemental terms, domicile consists of (1) residence and (2) an intent to remain there. Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield , 490 U.S. 30, 48, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989). In practice, however, the law of domicile has long been one of presumptions. In his Commentaries on ......
  • Reves v. Ernst Young, No. 88-1480
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • February 21, 1990
    ...as a basis for a nationally uniform answer to this "federal question." As we said in Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 47, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 1608, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989): "That we are dealing with a uniform federal rather than a state definition does not, of course......
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    ...upon the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and exercised through the Tribal Court"); see also Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield , 490 U.S. 30, 42, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989) ("Tribal jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings is not a novelty of the ICWA."); Johnson ......
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1 firm's commentaries
  • Supreme Court Considers Native American Preferences And Classifications
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • December 1, 2022
    ...more likely to be condemned as employing impermissible racial classifications. Footnotes 1. Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 32 2. Id 3. Id. at 33. 4. Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 (1974). 5. Id. at 555. 6. Id. at 552. 7. Id. 8. Id. at 553 n.24. 9. See generally Br......
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    ...and United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 37 CARDOZO L. REV. 1185, 1241-42 (2016). (111.) Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 49 (1989) (describing the ICWA protecting "not only the interests of individual Indian children and families, but also of the tribes themselves")......
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    ...U.S.C. [section] 1302. (36.) 25 U.S.C. [section] 1901(3). (37.) Id. [section] 1901(4). (38.) Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 32-33 (1989); H.R. Rep. No. 95-1386, at 9 (39.) H.R. Rep. No. 95-1386, at 11 (1978). (40.) See, e.g., 25 U.S.C. [section] 1913 (providing for......

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