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Justices Take Case on Adoption of Indian Child

January 5, 2013

New York Times

Published: January 4, 2013


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider cases concerning the adoption of American Indian children and whether federal judges may play a role in plea negotiations.

The adoption case involves a South Carolina couple who were ordered to turn over a 27-month-old girl they had cared for since birth to her biological father, an Indian, whom the girl had never met. The South Carolina Supreme Court, saying it was doing so “with a heavy heart,” ruled for the father, even as it acknowledged that the adoptive couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, were “ideal parents who have exhibited the ability to provide a loving family environment.”

Under South Carolina law, the majority said, the girl, Veronica, would have stayed with the Capobiancos. But federal law, under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, calls for special procedures rooted in the sovereignty of Indian nations and a history of abusive child welfare practices involving Indian children.

Lawyers for the Capobiancos said the law did not apply because Veronica’s biological father, Dusten Brown, had relinquished his parental rights in a text message. Lawyers for Mr. Brown and his tribe, the Cherokee Nation, said that “extraordinary defects in the adoption process,” including efforts to conceal Veronica’s Indian heritage, were to blame for a case that had been “painful and personally difficult for all of the parties.”

The main question the justices have been asked to decide in the case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, No. 12-399, is whether the law applies when an unmarried mother who is not an Indian gives up her child for adoption. Some lower courts have said that the law kicks in only if the adoption breaks up an existing Indian family, others that it applies when an absent father is an Indian.

The court also agreed to hear United States v. Davila, No. 12-167, which concerns a guilty plea filed by Anthony Davila in a tax conspiracy case after pressure from a federal magistrate judge. There is no dispute that the judge violated a federal rule of criminal procedure, which says of plea negotiations that “the court must not participate in these discussions.”

The federal appeals court in Atlanta allowed Mr. Davila to withdraw his plea and face trial, saying there were good reasons for an “absolute ban on judicial participation.”

Other appeals courts have required defendants seeking to withdraw guilty pleas to show they were hurt by the judge’s participation, relying on another part of the rule.

The federal government urged the justices to resolve the conflict, saying that guilty pleas accounted for 97 percent of federal criminal convictions. Judges “cannot stay completely removed from all matters touching upon plea discussions,” the brief said, and so they will sometimes run afoul of the rule barring any participation.




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