The ruling crossed ideological lines. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said nothing in federal law barred the termination of her biological father's parental rights.
The emotionally charged case pitted South Carolina law -- and the laws of most states, which consider the best interests of an adoptive child -- against the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA.
The 1978 act was designed in part to protect the interests of Indian fathers when single mothers give up children for adoption. Private adoption agencies had been sending Indian children to white adoptive parents at a high rate.
"Veronica" was born in 2009 to a single Indian mother in Oklahoma. Her father, a Cherokee and a soldier at the U.S. Army's Fort Sill, Okla., texted the mother while she was pregnant, giving up all rights. But the father later decided he wanted the child, and eventually a divided South Carolina Supreme Court cited the federal act, said it trumped state law and ordered that the white adoptive parents, a James Island, S.C., couple -- the only parents the child knew -- to give up the 2-year-old.
She has since been living with her biological father.
"This case is about a little girl [Baby Girl] who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2 percent [3/256] Cherokee," Alito said in the majority opinion. "Because Baby Girl is classified in this way, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that certain provisions of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 required her to be taken, at the age of 27 months, from the only parents she had ever known and handed over to her biological father, who had attempted to relinquish his parental rights and who had no prior contact with the child. The provisions of the federal statute at issue here do not demand this result."
Under the way the South Carolina Supreme Court read federal law, "a biological Indian father could abandon his child in utero and refuse any support for the birth mother -- perhaps contributing to the mother's decision to put the child up for adoption -- and then could play his ICWA trump card at the 11th hour to override the mother's decision and the child's best interests. If this were possible, many prospective adoptive parents would surely pause before adopting any child who might possibly qualify as an Indian under the ICWA."
The ruling reverses the lower court and sends the case back down for a new result based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.