Law School Case Brief
Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield - 490 U.S. 30, 109 S. Ct. 1597 (1989)
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 domicile of origin will be in a place where the child has never been.
Two children were born in Harrison County, Mississippi, to unmarried parents, both of whom were nrolled members of an Indian tribe and were residents and domiciliaries of a tribal reservation in Mississippi. The children were born 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 stated that tribal courts generally had jurisdiction exclusive as to any state over child custody proceedings involving Indian children domiciled on the reservation. The 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 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.
Can the children be considered to have been domiciled on the tribal reservation?
The United States Supreme Court held that because the 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 appellant had an equal interest in the placement of the children. The Court held that Congress intended the meaning of "domicile" under the ICWA to be a matter of uniform federal law and not a matter of individual state law, although it was permissible to borrow established state common-law principles of domicile to the extent that they were not inconsistent with the objectives of the congressional scheme. The Court posited that under general common-law principles--which indicated that the domicile of illegitimate children followed that of their mother--the children in the instant case were domiciled on the reservation within the meaning of 1911(a). According to the Court, the fact that the children were voluntarily surrendered by their mother did not change that result, because the ICWA was intended in part to protect the interests of the Indian community in retaining its children within its society, and tribal jurisdiction under 1911(a) was thus not meant to be defeated by the actions of the tribe's individual members. Thus, the Indian 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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