Nebraska Supreme Court Decides Transfer to Tribal Court ICWA Decision


In a 4-3 decision (though all the justices unanimously would overturn the lower court denial of transfer), the Court uses the 2015 Guidelines and the Nebraska ICWA to overturn the lower court decision not to transfer based on the late stage of the proceedings, and denies the State’s attempt to use best interests in a jurisdictional determination:

In our consideration of whether good cause existed to overrule the motion to transfer, we find the amended BIA guidelines persuasive and instructive. The BIA guidelines were amended during this appeal, and we find them applicable to the case at bar. We hold that a determination that the proceeding is at an advanced stage is no longer a valid basis for finding good cause to deny a motion to transfer jurisdiction to a tribal court. We conclude that the overruling of the motion to transfer denied Appellant a just result.


We decline the State’s invitation to change our holding in In re Interest of Zylena R. & Adrionna R., 284 Neb. 834, 825 N.W.2d 173 (2012), for several reasons. First, we note that the amended BIA guidelines expressly provide that it is inappropriate for state courts to conduct an independent analysis of the best interests of the Indian child in determining placement preferences. While this preclusion of a best interests analysis did not specifically refer to transfers of cases to tribal courts, the BIA guidelines further state that whenever a parent or tribe – seeks to transfer the case to tribal court, it is presumptively in the best interests of the Indian child to transfer the case to the jurisdiction of the Indian tribe. Second, we find that the context of the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, supra, did not indicate that the Court intended to impose the best interests standard on motions to transfer.

Since ICWA was passed, there have only been fourteen cases where the appellate court reverses the lower court and orders transfer (out of 133 transfer cases total). There have been 9 cases the appellate court has reversed the lower court’s denial and ordered a hearing consistent with the decision.

The State also engaged in some shenanigans regarding the timing of the procedures:

The juvenile court found that the State had met its burden of showing good cause because the proceeding was at an advanced stage. It reasoned that usually, the date for determining whether the case was at an advanced stage would be the date of the filing of a motion to terminate parental rights. Because the State withdrew its motion for termination of parental rights on January 6, 2015, the court concluded that May 16, 2013, was the date of the State’s petition for adjudication. Using May 16, 2013, as the starting date, it concluded that the proceeding was at an advanced stage.

The juvenile court expressed concern that an Indian parent could play “an ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour” to transfer the case to tribal court. But we point out that the State’s dismissal of its motion to terminate parental rights to avoid a transfer leaves an Indian child suspended in uncertainty. If the State sought a termination of parental rights, the party seeking transfer could file a new motion to transfer and the State could again dismiss the termination proceeding. The juvenile court’s conclusion that the matter was in an advanced stage stemmed from the State’s voluntary dismissal of the termination proceeding.

Finally, there is an extensive partial concurrence and dissent joined by three Justices, explaining that the Court’s reliance on the 2015 Guidelines is due to their alignment with the Nebraska ICWA (most recently amended in 2015), and a lengthy discussion of how Nebraska should define “good cause” in the transfer provision. Ultimately, the dissent/concurrence stated:

In summary, I agree with the majority that the mere advanced stage of the proceeding should no longer be good cause to deny a motion to transfer to tribal court. But because we announce a significant change in the law today, I respectfully disagree with the majority’s disposition of this case, and suggest the better disposition would be to vacate, and remand for further proceedings, and in doing so, I would provide further guidance on the applicable standard of review, the appropriate quantum of proof, and the proper parameters of good cause to deny a transfer under ICWA and NICWA. For these reasons, I both concur and dissent in the opinion of the court.

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