The U.S. Supreme Court Decides The Chafin Custody Case

On behalf of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Child Custody on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.

Child custody cases are governed by the Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Hague Convention is a treaty signed by 89 members. It protects children from abduction across international lines by providing a procedure to quickly return them. But after the child has been returned, how does a parent appeal if they think the trial court got it wrong?

In Chafin, the question was whether the case is moot after the child has been returned to their country of habitual residence. Ms. Chafin returned to Scotland with the child after a federal trial judge allowed it. Sgt. Chafin appealed the order. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed his appeal as moot. The 11th Circuit is also the federal appeals court governing Florida.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 11th Circuit court. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. the Supreme Court held:

If these cases were to become moot upon return, courts would be more likely to grant stays as a matter of course, to prevent the loss of any right to appeal. In cases in which a stay would not be granted . . . a child would lose precious months when she could have been readjusting to life in her country of habitual residence, even though the appeal had little chance of success. Such routine stays due to mootness would be likely but would conflict with the Convention’s mandate of prompt return to a child’s country of habitual residence. Routine stays could also increase the number of appeals. Currently, only about 15% of Hague Convention cases are appealed.

If losing parents were effectively guaranteed a stay, it seems likely that more would appeal, a scenario that would undermine the goal of prompt return and the best interests of children who should in fact be returned. A mootness holding here might also encourage flight in future Hague Convention cases, as prevailing parents try to flee the jurisdiction to moot the case. In every case under the Hague Convention, the well-being of a child is at stake; application of the traditional stay factors ensures that each case will receive the individualized treatment necessary for appropriate consideration of the child’s best interests.

The whole opinion can be read here.