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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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