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Supreme Court upholds crucial law for Native American families

Amy Coney Barrett wrote the 7-2 opinion, over dissent from Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.


The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a crucial law meant to preserve Native American families and culture.

In a 7-2 decision, the court rejected challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law that seeks to keep Native American children with their extended family, another family in the tribe, or a family from another tribe in cases of foster care and adoption. Its passage followed a sordid history of states and the federal government separating them.

“The issues are complicated,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority. “But the bottom line is that we reject all of petitioners’ challenges to the statute, some on the merits and others for lack of standing.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Challenging the law at the Supreme Court were, among other parties, a white evangelical Christian couple from Texas, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, who've fought to adopt Native American children over Native American tribal objection. Backed by Texas and other right-wing institutions, they argued, among other things, that the law violated equal protection by drawing racial distinctions. But tribes, supported by the Biden administration, pointed out that tribal membership is a political, not racial, classification.

The Supreme Court in Haaland v. Brackeen didn't decide the equal protection issue because there wasn't standing to challenge it. Rather, the court affirmed congressional authority to pass the law known as ICWA and rejected arguments that it unduly encroached state authority.

The case raised broader concerns about tribal sovereignty and was argued during the same term in which Republicans tried to further dismantle affirmative action and voting rights at the Supreme Court. (The court surprisingly rejected the Voting Rights Act challenge but affirmative action is still pending.) All of these appeals lend themselves to an ignorant "colorblind" view of the Constitution, with the GOP hoping to flatten laws that help nonwhite people without accounting for the racist history that prompted their passage.

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