RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
By far the biggest news out of yesterday's Supreme Court rulings was that it struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Let's hear now about another opinion, this one involving the reach of another law, the Indian Child Welfare Act. That 1978 law protects Native American tribes from having their children separated from their families and given to non-Native adoptive or foster parents. The law is at the center of an emotional custody battle for an adopted American Indian girl whose fate is still in question.
NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has our story.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The case is known as Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. And that baby girl is three-year-old Veronica. Here she is earlier this year on WNYC's Radiolab.
DUSTEN BROWN: Are you a good swimmer?
VERONICA: Yes. I'm a good swimmer.
WANG: She's currently living with her biological father, Dusten Brown, in Oklahoma. Her placement there came after a complex saga that put into question who should have custody. After Veronica's birth mother, Christy Maldonado, became pregnant, she refused to marry Brown, who considers himself part Cherokee. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We should have made clear that Brown is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, according to court documents.]
He later texted the mother to say he was giving up his parental rights and would not support the child. But when he found out that Veronica had been put up for adoption in South Carolina, he went to court to get full custody of his daughter. Eighteen months ago, the South Carolina courts ordered the adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, to turn baby Veronica over to her biological father. They based their ruling on the Indian Child Welfare Act.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the law should not be applied to this case. Because, the court said, Dusten Brown had given up custody before the child was born. The decision was good news for Christy Maldonado, says her attorney Lori Alvino McGill.
LORI ALVINO MCGILL: She is ecstatic. I mean, I think it's fair to say that she's extremely relieved, you know, hopeful that this means that she and the Capobiancos will soon be reunited with Veronica.
WANG: Hopeful but not certain, because yesterday's Supreme Court ruling was not clear about whether the adoptive couple would regain custody.
MARCIA ZUG: It would have been clear had the court come out the other way.
WANG: Marcia Zug is a law professor at the University of South Carolina who's been following the case closely.
ZUG: The Capobiancos never actually were able to adopt Veronica. So there was no adoption that went through.
WANG: A complication that will be reconsidered by judges in South Carolina; the Supreme Court's ruling returns the case back to the lower courts to decide who should have custody of Veronica.
The lawyers for the Capobiancos and for Veronica's biological father couldn't be reached for interviews. But the adoptive couple did release a statement, saying the Supreme Court's decision clearly establishes that their adoption should have been approved.
This case has been a major test for the Indian Child Welfare Act, says Mary Jo Hunter, who teaches Native American law at Hamline University in Minnesota and serves on tribal courts in Wisconsin and Nebraska.
MARY JO HUNTER: It's not overruled. It's not ruled unconstitutional.
WANG: Hunter says, in one sense, yesterday's ruling on the Indian Child Welfare Act was narrow. It only disqualified people like Dusten Brown who either gave up or never had custody. But...
HUNTER: For our community, that's a large group of people.
WANG: Given that many Native American children just have one Native American parent, Hunter says situations similar to baby Veronica's are fairly common. She fears that, as a result, yesterday's ruling may ultimately put one of the main goals of the law, to keep American Indian children in American Indian families, at risk.
It's a concern shared by Steven Hager, an attorney with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services.
STEVEN HAGER: You know, any father's rights groups should be feeling a cold chill go down their spine, because basically I don't think father's rights are going to stand very well.
WANG: Hager says the Supreme Court's decision will probably spark more litigation around the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.