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Supreme Court rules parent can appeal in international child custody dispute

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] in Chafin v. Chafin [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that a parent can appeal a custody ruling when a district court has determined the child's habitual residence is another country and the child has already been removed from the US. The issue in this case stems from a custody dispute between US Army Sergeant Jeffrey Lee Chafin and his Scottish wife, Lynn Chafin. A district court ruled that, under the Hague Convention of the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction [text], their child's habitual place of residence was Scotland, so Mrs. Chafin moved there and took the child with her. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion] earlier this year to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was moot. Chief Justice John Roberts held that an order from an appeals court to a district court would not be moot despite the unlikeliness of compliance of a foreign jurisdiction with a district court's return order. Roberts wrote:

Enforcement of the order may be uncertain if Ms. Chafin chooses to defy it, but such uncertainty does not typically render cases moot. Courts often adjudicate disputes where the practical impact of any decision is not assured. ... Courts also decide cases against foreign nations, whose choices to respect final rulings are not guaranteed. ... The Hague Convention mandates the prompt return of children to their countries of habitual residence. But such return does not render this case moot; there is a live dispute between the parties over where their child will be raised, and there is a possibility of effectual relief for the prevailing parent. The courts below therefore continue to have jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of the parties’ respective claims.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer in a concurring opinion. Ginsburg wrote, "the advent of rival custody proceedings in Scotland and Alabama is just what the Convention aimed to stave off. This case highlights the need for both speed and certainty in Convention decisionmaking. Most Contracting States permit challenges to first instance return orders." The opinion advocated quick judicial action in these cases.

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