February 19, 2013

Supreme Court Decides Chafin v. Chafin

On February 19, 2013, the Supreme Court decided Chafin v. Chafin, No. 11-1347, holding that the return of six-year old E.C. Chafin to Scotland did not moot her father's appeal of the district court's decision that she should be returned to Scotland, nor was the father's request for vacatur of associated costs and expenses orders mooted by the lack of separate appeals from those orders.   

Jeffrey Lee Chafin ("Father"), a citizen of the United States, married Lynne Hales Chafin ("Mother"), a citizen of the United Kingdom, abroad in 2006. The couple had a daughter, E.C., in 2007. Father, a member of the United States military, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007, and Mother took E.C. to Scotland. Father was later transferred to Alabama, and Mother and E.C. came to Alabama in February 2010. Soon after, Father filed for divorce and child custody in Alabama state court. In February 2011, Mother was deported and the child remained with Father. In May 2011, Mother initiated proceedings in the District Court for the Northern District of Alabama under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA) seeking return of the child to Scotland. The district court held a bench trial, granted Mother's petition, and denied Father's motion for stay pending appeal. Within hours of the ruling, Mother departed with E.C. for Scotland. Father appealed the district court's ruling, but the Eleventh Circuit dismissed his appeal as moot on the ground that the child had been returned to a foreign country and the court lacked power to grant relief.

The Supreme Court reversed. A unanimous Court determined that the return of the child to Scotland did not moot Father's appeal of the district court's order permitting that return. The dispute between the parents as to the proper location for the child's upbringing was "still very much alive." The fact that the child had already been returned to Scotland did not prevent the appellate court from reviewing the district court's decision. Mother's arguments denying the authority of the courts under the Hague Convention to order re-return of the child to the United States went to the merits of the dispute, not mootness. Also, uncertainty as to the enforceability of an order directing re-return of the child to the United States did not destroy the existence of a case or controversy. United States courts continue to have personal jurisdiction over Mother and may command her to take action outside the United States. The Court similarly concluded that Father's request for vacatur of the district court's order that he pay court costs, expenses, and travel expenses related to Mother's petition was not rendered moot by the lack of separate appeals from those orders. The Court cited authority that failure to appeal such judgments separately does not preclude relief and noted that Mother's contrary argument again went to the merits, not mootness. 

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Scalia and Breyer joined.

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