WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is trying to sort out a wrenching adoption case involving a Native American child, a biological father who first renounced any interest in her, and adoptive parents who were eventually ordered to hand her over to the father.
The justices heard an appeal Tuesday from the South Carolina couple who wanted to adopt the girl, named Veronica. The outcome of the case was unclear after arguments that included an unusually emotional appeal from the couple’s lawyer. Justice Anthony Kennedy said he wished he could call upon King Solomon to figure it out.
The case turns on the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 because Indian children were being removed from their homes and typically placed with non-Indian adoptive or foster parents. The law gives tribes and relatives a say in decisions affecting a child. State courts have been at odds on the law’s application.
The Obama administration, 18 states, several Indian tribes, current and former members of Congress, and children’s welfare groups have lined up in support of the father. The National Council for Adoption and the American Association of Adoption Attorneys are among the groups supporting the South Carolina couple.
Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, invoked the federal law to stop the adoption arranged by the girl’s non-Indian mother when she was pregnant and the Charleston, S.C.-area couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco. Brown had never met his daughter and, after the mother rebuffed his marriage proposal, played no role during the pregnancy and paid no child support.
But when Brown found out Veronica was going to be adopted, he objected and said the law favored the girl living with him and growing up learning tribal traditions.
South Carolina courts agreed and Brown took Veronica, now 3, back to Oklahoma at the end of 2011, after she had lived with the Capobiancos for the first 27 months of her life.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the law clearly favors the biological father and does not direct courts to take into account the best interests of the child.
The conservative justice got considerable support from a liberal colleague, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
‘‘If the father’s fit, why do you think that the federal statute requires that it be given to a stranger rather than to the biological father?’’ Sotomayor asked Lisa Blatt, the Capobiancos’ lawyer.
Blatt argued repeatedly that Brown had relinquished his parental rights and should not have been allowed to intervene at the last minute to block the adoption.
Chief Justice John Roberts, father of two adopted children, seemed sympathetic to Blatt’s clients and pressed Brown’s lawyer, Charles Rothfeld, about why Brown should win custody in spite of his early renunciation of his duties as the father.
When Rothfeld said Brown was excited to learn his girlfriend was pregnant, Roberts said, ‘‘He was excited, but there is no doubt he paid nothing during the pregnancy and nothing at the time of the birth, right, to support the child or the mother?’’