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Iowa Supreme Court Rules Iowa ICWA “Indian Child” Definition Unconstitutional December 6, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in State Courts.
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In the Interest of A.W. and S.W. v. Iowa Attorney General, No. 60/06-1074 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Nov 30, 2007)

Issue(s): Constitutional Law > Fourteenth Amendment >> Equal Protection >>> Political or Racial Classifications; Indian Child Welfare Act > Federal Delegation of Authority >> State Legislation

The Iowa ICWA defines an “Indian child” as any unmarried minor that “an Indian tribe identifies as a child of the tribe’s community.” For purposes of this definition, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska identifies children of tribal members as part of its “community.” A.W. and S.W. do not qualify for membership under the Winnebago Constitution, but are children of a tribal member. As applied, does the Iowa definition violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment?

The Iowa Supreme Court answered in the affirmative. Under the auspices of the federal ICWA, the Iowa General Assembly enacted the Iowa ICWA as companion legislation. The Court noted, however, that the Iowa ICWA definition of “Indian child” was broader than its federal counterpart. In combination with the Winnebago resolution, the definition includes not only Indian children that are also tribal members but also so-called “ethnic” Indians. Ethnic Indians, by the Court’s usage, do not belong to any federally recognized tribe. Thus, the Iowa ICWA places tribal Indian children and ethnic Indian children in the same class while excluding non-Indian children.

The Court then asked if, by including ethnic Indians, the Iowa ICWA definition was a racial classification. Iowa enacted its law pursuant to federal delegation under the federal ICWA. Thus, the classification would be racial if it were racial under federal law. The US Supreme Court has upheld Indian preferences used by the BIA and other federal agencies because of the federal trust relationship with the tribes. The Supreme Court has explained that the preferences must be rationally designed to further tribal self-government. In other words, Congress can only grant preferences to members of federally recognized tribes. If Congress acts outside this scope the classification becomes racial rather than “political.” Incorporating this doctrine, the Iowa Supreme Court found that the Iowa definition was not rationally related to tribal self-government because A.W. and S.W. are not members of a federally recognized tribe.

Racial classifications are subject to strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court found that the Iowa General Assembly had a “compelling interest” in administering the federally-delegated trust relationship. The definition, however, was not narrowly tailored and was overbroad because it included ethnic Indians. Therefore, as applied, the Iowa ICWA definition of “Indian child” violated the Equal Protection Clause.

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