Georgia-based soldier’s child custody case now before Supreme Court

Last updated on April 8, 2021

A soldier and father presently based in Georgia at Fort Stewart is one of the principals in a convoluted international child custody case presently before the United States Supreme Court. As indicated by a number of media sources, the Justices appear to be somewhat conflicted and with no easy answers following oral arguments heard on the matter last Wednesday.

Sergeant Jeffrey Chafin and his ex-wife — a United Kingdom citizen — have a daughter, who was born in Germany in 2007. While the couple was processing a divorce in May 2010 in Alabama, Lynne Chafin was deported for overstaying her visa. Jeffrey Chafin was granted custody of the couple’s child.

A year later, though, Lynne Chafin prevailed following her petition under the Hague Convention for return of her daughter to Scotland. A U.S. federal judge found in her favor, holding that Scotland was the daughter’s habitual residence. The daughter was allowed to leave the country after the judge disallowed a motion to stay the order. Sergeant Chafee appealed that decision, but his claim was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on the ground that it was moot because the child had already left the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now wrestling with the matter, specifically the rationale underlying the Hague Convention and the Court’s own requirements for assessing mootness.

The girl has now been with her mother in Scotland for 14 months, with her legal team arguing that the matter is closed, given the final relief accorded by the Hague Convention, its main goal being to end the uncertain and continuous transfer of children between jurisdictions.

Sergeant Chafin’s counsel counters that the matter is not moot; a lower-court reversal would preclude mootness by allowing for a redetermination of the child’s habitual residence, and under Alabama — not Scottish — law. Moreover, it could reverse a money judgment awarded against the soldier.

Comments from the Justices suggest a split on the matter.

“This child has been in Scotland for 14 months,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “Now you say bring it back to the United States and we start all over.”

“Get on the first plane out and then you’re home free,” responded Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. “That seems to me to be a very unfortunate result.”

Source: The National Law Journal, “Justices appear uneasy with ramifications of international custody dispute,” Marcia Coyle, Dec. 5, 2012

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