In 2018, a Texas District Court shocked the nation by declaring the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) unconstitutional pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision was overturned by the Fifth Circuit but may well be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ICWA provides a framework for the removal and placement of Indian children into foster and adoptive homes in such a way that attempts to reflect the unique values of Indian culture and supports the autonomy of the tribe. In doing so, the law treats Indian children differently than it would White children. But does this divergent treatment constitute impermissible racial discrimination? Should the ICWA’s protections be applied to children merely eligible for tribal membership? What level of scrutiny should courts use when analyzing the ICWA’s constitutionality? This Note will provide insight into these questions which the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed.
This Note provides a background of the ICWA and examines the current constitutional controversy in the Fifth Circuit by placing the ICWA in the larger statutory context of federal Indian jurisprudence. This Note analyzes the fundamental question raised in Indian law equal protection cases—whether the term “Indian” should be interpreted as a racial or political classification. An examination of precedent confirms the unique status of Indians as non-racial, semi-autonomous actors who often receive uncommon treatment. With this context in mind, this Note explores past equal protection challenges to the ICWA and lays out the current case. This Note recommends that the Supreme Court uphold the Fifth Circuit’s finding of constitutionality on the equal protection claim and provides two possible analytical paths to reach that conclusion. The first ascribes to the common argument that “Indian” should be viewed as a political classification, subject to reduced scrutiny. The second, however, questions the assumption that the application of strict scrutiny is fatal to the ICWA, instead proposing an alternative path forward drawing from Supreme Court reasoning in affirmative action cases. This Note concludes that future challenges to the ICWA should be struck down as the ICWA passes all levels of constitutional scrutiny.