Rule of Law

Haaland v. Brackeen

In Haaland v. Brackeen, the Supreme Court considered whether certain provisions in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 are unconstitutional because they impermissibly commandeer state officials.

Case Summary

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which established minimum federal standards for child custody proceedings involving Indian children. These standards were aimed at preventing the separation of Indian children from their families and communities via foster care and adoption. In 2018, seven individuals and three states challenged the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Act. Specifically, these challengers argued that the Act is unconstitutional because—among other things—it forces state actors to enforce federal law. The district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.

After the district court’s ruling, the Navajo Nation appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court generally rejected the district court’s commandeering analysis, but did conclude that some provisions of ICWA constitute unconstitutional commandeering. In 2021, various parties asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, and it agreed to do so.

On August 19, 2022, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief rebutting the challengers’ anti-commandeering arguments. Our brief made two main points.

First, our brief explained that founding-era history and Supreme Court precedent demonstrate that Congress has the power to make rules that apply in state courts. The Framers included the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution to ensure that states would comply with acts of Congress. Since then, Congress—including the nation’s first Congress—has passed many federal statutes that are enforceable in state courts. Nineteenth-century bankruptcy laws, for example, established federal rights with which state courts were required to comply. Courts in that era even enforced the bankruptcy laws against state officials, suggesting that the participation of these officials in bankruptcy proceedings did not amount to unconstitutional commandeering. Consistent with this history, this Court’s precedent makes clear that whatever restrictions on commandeering state officials the Constitution may impose, those restrictions do not prevent Congress from requiring state courts to enforce federal law.

Second, our brief showed that Congress has the power to require state actors to perform tasks that supplement the adjudicative process, including keeping records and sharing information with the federal government. For example, early naturalization acts required state courts to keep records of individuals who sought to become citizens and share related information with the federal government. As the Supreme Court has explained, these requirements were constitutional because they supplemented the “quintessentially adjudicative” project of naturalization, just like ICWA’s recordkeeping and information-sharing provisions relate to the implementation of the law’s core provisions.

Thus, throughout our nation’s history, Congress has applied federal rules to state actors, and courts have repeatedly affirmed its ability to do so. There was no reason for the Supreme Court to treat ICWA any differently.

On June 15, 2023, the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the constitutionality of ICWA. The Court rejected the argument that Congress violates the anticommandeering doctrine when it makes rules that apply in state courts, as well as the argument that ICWA’s recordkeeping provisions violate the Tenth Amendment. Echoing CAC’s brief, the Court held that these requirements related to state court proceedings are entirely consistent with the kinds of obligations that Congress has imposed on state actors since the Founding.

Case Timeline