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SCOTUS Overturns 11th's Mootness Ruling in Hague Convention Case

By William Peacock, Esq. on February 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A common problem for our nation's servicemen and women is the issues that arise from international love. They fall for someone while stationed abroad but run into legal barriers with immigration, international family law, custody, and divorce if things progress through marriage and divorce.

Sgt. Jeffrey Lee Chafin fell in love with Lynne Hales Chafin when he was stationed abroad. The couple married and had a child before he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. Being a U.K. native, Lynn took the child to Scotland until Sgt. Chafin returned to the United States in 2010. She then moved to Huntsville, Alabama to join her husband.

Alas, their marriage didn't last and she was deported after a domestic violence incident. She fought for custody of the couple's child under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Though the state court ruled in the father's favor, a federal court ruled that the child should be returned to Scotland, as that was the child's habitual residence.

The Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal as moot, as the child had already been returned to Scotland hours after the lower court's ruling. The court relied upon its prior decision in Bekier v. Bekier, which held that the return of a child to the country of habitual residence renders a case moot.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit ruling, and in the process resolved a circuit split between the Eleventh Circuit's rulings and the Fourth Circuit's ruling in Fawcett v. McRoberts.

In addressing the issue of mootness, the court stated:

"This dispute is still very much alive. Mr. Chafin continues to contend that his daughter's country of habitual residence is the United States, while Ms. Chafin main­tains that E. C.'s home is in Scotland. Mr. Chafin also argues that even if E. C.'s habitual residence was Scot­land, she should not have been returned because the Convention's defenses to return apply."

"On many levels, the Chafins continue to vigorously contest the question of where their daughter will be raised. This is not a case where a decision would address 'a hypothetical state of facts.' And there is not the slightest doubt that there continues to exist between the parties 'that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues.'"

The court also noted that if they were to rule otherwise, it would necessitate stays in international custody decisions as a matter of course, as doing do would allow appeals. This means more delays in getting the child settled in his or her permanent home. The court also noted that the Eleventh Circuit's ruling encourages flight, as removing the child from the country moots the legal dispute in that circuit.

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