Rare Family Law Case Heard by U.S. Supreme Court

FILE - In this March 5, 2009 file photo, the Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington. For the first time in four years,
FILE - In this March 5, 2009 file photo, the Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington. For the first time in four years, the Supreme Court has gone an entire term without granting the quick release of audio recordings of high-profile arguments. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Many parents embroiled in child custody cases might only dream of bringing their cases to the highest court in the land, yet this became reality for Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Lee Chafin last week, when oral arguments were heard by the United States Supreme Court in his case, Chafin v. Chafin, 11-1347.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case by granting rare mid-summer cert in the case in 2012. Chafin is further unique because only approximately 1 percent of all cases presented to the Supreme Court are heard, and among those, few are family law cases, which are ordinarily heard in the state courts. However, a circuit split between the American federal appellate courts on Hague Convention return cases such as this one provided Sergeant Chafin with a compelling question to bring to the United States Supreme Court.

The question is whether American federal appellate courts have the authority to review, after that child has left the United States, a district court's order returning the child to her habitual residence under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Hague Convention aims to determine the proper country for child custody proceedings.

In the case at bar, which arises from an international custody dispute, the father is American and the mother is Scottish. Their five-year-old daughter was born in Germany with dual United States and United Kingdom citizenship. While the father was deployed to Afghanistan, the mother and the child moved to Scotland, establishing a residence there. When the father was transferred to Alabama, the family moved to Alabama to reunite.

Shortly thereafter, upon visa and marital issues, the mother secured an order from the federal district court to return with the child to Scotland pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, after successfully arguing that the child's habitual residence was Scotland. As soon as the court's decision came down and the father's motion to stay the order was denied, the mother departed for Scotland with the child. She subsequently filed for Scottish custody proceedings, and mother and daughter have been in Scotland for fourteen months to date, with child custody proceedings still pending.

When the father appealed the district court's order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed his appeal after finding the issue moot on account of the child's return to Scotland. The court remanded the case to the district court to vacate its order and dismiss the case as moot.

A case is moot if there is no case or controversy for the appeals court to resolve. In other words, the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome. The important consequence of a moot case is that the appellate court has no authority to give an opinion on the moot question or an abstract proposition, or to declare principles or rules of law which cannot affect the matter in issue in the case before the Court.

The 11th Circuit's determination of Sergeant Chafin's appeal as moot represents a circuit split, with the 4th Circuit taking a contrary position in a previous case and permitting such appeals as not moot. The Supreme Court's decision will resolve the split between the circuits on this issue.

During oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, mother's counsel argued that there would be no effect of American appellate review and the issue is moot now that the child has been living in Scotland for fourteen months. The father's counsel, on the other hand, argued that an appellate decision could matter in several ways to the father, which was sufficient reason to permit an appeal. For example, the appellate court could determine that the child's habitual residence is the United States instead of Scotland. Furthermore, the child could be ordered back to the United States, and child custody proceedings could be held in Alabama instead of Scotland. These are the potential effects of a successful appeal, which father's counsel argued keeps the case from being moot.

There's not much basis on which to predict what the Supreme Court will hold after being brought into this messy international custody dispute, but it is important to remember that children are best served by swift and conclusive judicial decisions regarding their custody. And, to this end, one of the Justices expressed concern during oral arguments about shuttling the child between the two countries, which the Hague Convention aimed to stop. On the other hand, the American appellate process serves as an important check on lower court decisions. Ultimately, however, this case serves as a reminder to everyone -- regardless of the position the Court takes -- that the swiftness of decisions regarding the child must always be sought.