The Supreme Court sided on Tuesday with adoptive parents in a divisive custody fight over a Native American child after the biological father asserted his parental rights.
The justices, by a 5-4 margin, said the adoption by a white couple was proper and did not intrude on the federal rights of the father, a registered member of the Cherokee tribe, over where his daughter, Veronica, 3, would live.
The court said the father could not rely on the Indian Child Welfare Act for relief because he never had legal or physical custody at the time of adoption proceedings, which were initiated by the birth mother without his knowledge.
Justice Samuel Alito said when "the adoption of an Indian child is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights, the (law's) primary goal of preventing unwarranted removal of Indian children and the dissolution of Indian families is not implicated."
The appeal was filed by Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who legally adopted Veronica in 2009 shortly after the birth mother agreed to give up the child.
She is known in court papers as "Baby Girl."
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled last year for the biological father, Dusten Brown, who had sought custody after Veronica's birth. He is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation and is raising the child in Oklahoma.
The ICWA remains in effect, but the high court majority concluded the biological father could not apply it to his circumstances.
The Supreme Court ruling throws the issue back to the state courts, but it was not clear whether and when Brown would have to turn the girl over to the Capobiancos.
"We are grateful for today's decision from the Supreme Court," said the Charleston, South Carolina, couple, in a statement. "We are also hopeful that today's decision will prevent the tragic disruption of other adoptions and prevent this heartbreak from happening to other families."
And Christinna Maldanado, Veronica's birth mother, also expressed satisfaction.
"Matt and Melanie are part of my family, and they have treated me like part of theirs. I'm hopeful that we will all be reunited with Veronica very soon," the statement said.
There was no immediate reaction from Brown, or the tribe. But Native American groups remained hopeful he would still keep custody.
"While we are pleased the court has upheld ICWA, we're very disappointed for Dusten, Veronica, and the Brown family that the court has ruled to send the case back to the South Carolina courts on a technicality," said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
"However, the courts in South Carolina have previously affirmed that Dusten Brown is Veronica's father and that he is a fit parent. We are confident that his parental rights will be upheld and that Veronica will stay with her family," Keel said.
The case is Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a Minor Child Under the Age of Fourteen Years (12-399)