SCOTUS Rules U.S. Custody Laws Apply Internationally

This is a long way from being decided — the mother has been in Scot­land now for years with the child in ques­tion — and like any other cus­tody fight, it has been messy.

But this is a huge win for not just the father hop­ing to have some cus­tody and say over his daugh­ter, but in any future cus­tody bat­tle where one par­ent believes the way to avoid U.S. cus­tody laws (and extra­di­tion) is to just flee the United States.  The actions of the SCOTUS today serve as a way to pre­vent this option in one of the most legally bru­tal fights out there.

The United States court sys­tem doesn’t lose juris­dic­tion in inter­na­tional cus­tody dis­putes sim­ply because the child involved is no longer in the coun­try, the Supreme Court said Tuesday.

That unan­i­mous rul­ing is the lat­est in the bat­tle between a U.S. sol­dier, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jef­frey Lee Chafin, and his estranged Scot­tish wife, Lynne Hales Chafin, over their daughter.

Chafin wants to appeal a fed­eral judge’s deci­sion to let Lynne Hales Chafin take their daugh­ter back to her native Scot­land. But the 11th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals ruled that Chafin’s appeal was moot because the 6-year-old girl has now been in Scot­land for more than a year, and that his only rem­edy is in Scotland’s courts.

Chief Jus­tice John Roberts said that was wrong. “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,” Roberts said. “The courts below there­fore con­tinue to have juris­dic­tion to adju­di­cate the mer­its of the par­ties’ respec­tive claims.”

The Chafins mar­ried in Scot­land in 2006; their daugh­ter was born in 2007. The fam­ily lived in Ger­many until Chafin was deployed in Afghanistan, and mother and daugh­ter moved to Scot­land. Chafin trans­ferred to Alabama in 2009, and was joined by his fam­ily the next year.

The Chafins agreed to divorce in 2010, and Lynne Chafin was deported in Feb­ru­ary 2011.

She sued to take her child with her, cit­ing the 1980 Hague con­ven­tion on inter­na­tional child abduc­tions, which is designed to return chil­dren ille­gally taken from mem­ber coun­tries. She said their daughter’s res­i­dence was Scot­land, and that her hus­band ille­gally retained the child in the United States. A fed­eral judge agreed, and ordered the girl be taken to Scot­land. The judge also refused to stay the order. The mother and child boarded a plane and left the country.

Chafin appealed to the cir­cuit court, which said the case was moot because the girl was in her offi­cial res­i­dence of Scotland.

That doesn’t mat­ter, Roberts said. Chafin has a right to make a claim, and a pos­si­bil­ity of suc­cess, which elim­i­nates an argu­ment of moot­ness. And the fact that the girl is in Scot­land doesn’t mat­ter, he said.

There is a long way to go in this, but at least it gives par­ents in inter­na­tional cus­tody fights a fair shot after the shock of see­ing their ex-spouse jump on a plane with their child and until today, lit­tle they could do about it.

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