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Granted: Supreme Court Child Custody Case to Consider Mootness

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Supreme Court cases often seem removed from our daily lives. We may not like the outcome of a prison strip search case, or agree that grand jury witnesses should receive absolute immunity (even when they lie), but most of us can’t imagine ourselves being personally affected by such decisions.

So most people — lawyers excluded — tend to ignore what happens in the Court. (The healthcare case was a rare exception.)

A Supreme Court child custody case, however, is likely to grab the attention of families and family law practitioners alike.

On Monday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Chafin v. Chafin, an international child custody dispute.

Jeffrey Chafin is a U.S. Army sergeant who lives in Alabama. Lynne Chafin is his Scottish ex-wife who resides in Glasgow. Lynne and the couple's daughter have lived in Scotland, apart from Jeffrey, since 2007 due to the Jeffrey's job with the military. In 2010, Lynne moved stateside to try to save her marriage. When the couple failed to reconcile, she decided to return to Scotland.

And the custody battle began.

An Alabama state court awarded custody to the father. Then a federal court awarded custody to the mother under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. (The federal court said that Scotland was the "habitual residence.") The mother returned to Glasgow with the child before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals could hear the father's appeal, so the appellate court concluded that the case was moot.

The Fourth Circuit, by contrast, concluded in Fawcett v. McRoberts in 2003 that an appeal of an order granting a Hague Convention petition is not mooted by the child's return to his country of habitual residence during the pendency of the appeal. (The Third Circuit adopted the same position one year later in Whiting v. Krassner.)

Now, the Supreme Court will resolve the mootness circuit split. Specifically, the Court has agreed to decide whether an appeal in a Hague case becomes moot if the child involved has returned to his or her home country, SCOTUSblog reports.

Based on availability in the Court's hearing schedule, SCOTUSblog is predicting that the Supreme Court child custody case will be argued in December.

The standard for custody disputes in U.S. family courts is "the best interest of the child." If the Supreme Court affirms the Eleventh Circuit in this case, is it prioritizing procedure and international law over the child's best interests?

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