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Law School Case Brief

Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield - 490 U.S. 30, 109 S. Ct. 1597 (1989)

Rule:

For adults, domicile is established by physical presence in a place in connection with a certain state of mind concerning one's intent to remain there. One acquires a "domicile of origin" at birth, and that domicile continues until a new one (a "domicile of choice") is acquired. Since most minors are legally incapable of forming the requisite intent to establish a domicile, their domicile is determined by that of their parents. In the case of an illegitimate child, that has traditionally meant the domicile of its mother. Under these principles, it is entirely logical that on occasion, a child's domicil of origin will be in a place where the child has never been.

Facts:

Two children, the unmarried parents of whom were both enrolled members of Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (“tribe”) and were residents and domiliciaries of a tribal reservation in Mississippi, were born in Harrison County, Mississippi, some 200 miles from the reservation. Both parents executed consent-to-adoption forms, and a non-Indian couple successfully petitioned the Chancery Court of Harrison County, Mississippi, for a decree of adoption. The tribe subsequently made a motion in the Chancery Court to vacate the adoption decree on the ground that that court lacked jurisdiction over the adoption, because of a provision of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which states that tribal courts generally have jurisdiction exclusive as to any state over child custody proceedings involving Indian children domiciled on the reservation. The Chancery Court, however, overruled the tribe's motion, as it noted that the children had never resided or physically been on the reservation, and that the mother had gone to some effort to see that her children were born elsewhere and had arranged the adoption at issue. In affirming the Chancery Court's ruling, the Supreme Court of Mississippi held that at no point in time could the children be said to have been domiciled on the reservation within the meaning of the Act. The Court also held that state court decisions providing that the domicile of minor children follows that of the parents were distinguishable on their facts. Finally, even if the Chancery Court had erred in assuming jurisdiction, it had adhered to the minimum federal standards for such adoptions with regard to parental consent, notice, and the like.

Issue:

Did the tribe have exclusive jurisdiction over the adoption of twin Indian children by non-Indians under the Indian Child Welfare Act?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The U.S. Supreme Court held that appeal was improper, but granted certiorari. The Court held that because the children's parents were domiciled on the reservation, the children were domiciliaries under ICWA. The fact that the parents left the reservation prior to birth did not change the children's domicile. The Court found that both the parents and the tribe had an equal interest in the placement of the children. Thus, the tribe had exclusive jurisdiction over the children's adoption. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the state supreme court and remanded the case.

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