[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Wednesday in Chafin v. Chafin [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], an international child custody dispute. The court will decide whether a parent can appeal in a custody suit when a district court has determined the child’s habitual residence is another country and the child has already been removed from the US, or whether the issue has become moot, taking away any cause of action. 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 [order] earlier this year to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was moot. An attorney for Mr. Chafin argued that the appeal is not moot because there are still ways that Mr. Chafin can be afforded relief from US courts. He said the court could overturn the district court’s ruling, reverse monetary awards that were given, order Mrs. Chafin and the child to return to the US, and continue court hearings in Alabama while causing current proceedings in Scotland to be dismissed. An attorney for the US also argued in support of Mr. Chafin. An attorney for Mrs. Chafin argued that an appeal would be moot at this point because an appeals order would mean nothing to Scottish courts, which have already begun custody proceedings. He said the appeals decision would come so late that, even if it decided the district court was wrong at the time of the first ruling and the child’s habitual residence was the US, the Scottish court would likely still find that the child’s habitual residence is now Scotland since the child has been living there since that ruling.
The Hague Convention, which has been ratified by 88 states [signatories, text], seeks to eliminate difficulties arising from custody disputes between parents of different nationalities, specifically problems occurring when courts refuse to recognize decisions of foreign courts. The US Supreme Court recently took on another case dealing with the Hague Convention, Abbott v. Abbott [opinion, PDF; JURIST report], which presented the issue of whether a ne exeat clause, which prohibits one parent from removing the child from the country without the other parent’s consent, confers a “right of custody,” which would require the other country to return the child if the clause was broken. The Supreme Court ruled that it did confer a “right of custody” within the meaning of the Hague Convention, reversing a lower court ruling on the issue.