RESPONDENT: Lynne H. Chafin
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama
DOCKET NO.: 11-1347
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 568 US (2013)
GRANTED: Aug 13, 2012
ARGUED: Dec 05, 2012
DECIDED: Feb 19, 2013
Michael E. Manely - for the petitioner
Nicole A. Saharsky - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Stephen J. Cullen - for the respondent
Facts of the case
In March 2006, U.S. Army sergeant Jeffrey L. Chafin married United Kingdom citizen Lynne Hales Chafin in Scotland. They had one child, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom. In February 2010, Lynne Chafin traveled to Alabama with the couple's child and intended to return to Scotland in May 2010 for the child's schooling. Before they could leave the country, Jeffrey Chafin filed a divorce petition in the Alabama courts and sought emergency relief to prevent his wife from leaving the country with the child. The trial court ordered both parties to stay in the country with the child throughout the divorce proceeding. Lynne Chafin filed a motion in federal district court requesting to return to Scotland with the child and citing The Hague Convention ruling on international child abduction. The district court held that the child was being unlawfully detained in the United States and allowed Lynne Chafin to return to Scotland with the child. Jeffrey Chafin appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the issue as moot because the child had already returned to Scotland.
Can a district court rule on a petition to return a child to his or her country of residence according The Hague Convention's articles once the child has returned to that country?
Media for Chafin v. ChafinAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 05, 2012 in Chafin v. Chafin
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 19, 2013 in Chafin v. Chafin
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have the opinion of the Court this morning in case 11-1347, Chafin against Chafin.
This case involves an international child custody dispute, but the question we resolve today is not which parent gets custody of the child.
It is instead whether an American court still has jurisdiction in the case when the child in question has been taken out of this country and it is not clear whether the Court could do anything about it.
The United States has signed a treaty known as the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.
If there is a custody dispute between parents in different countries, that treaty generally provides that the custody will be determined in the child's -- and this is a term of art, country of habitual residence.
If one of the parents has taken the child away from that country or prevented the child from returning to it, the other parent can get an order directing that the child be returned.
Jeffery Chafin is a member of the U.S. Military.
When he was stationed in Germany in 2006, he married a Scottish woman by the name of Lynne Hales.
Together, they had a daughter whom we will call E.C. Short time later, Mr. Chafin was sent to Afghanistan and Ms. Chafin took E.C. to Scotland.
When Mr. Chafin came back to the United States, specifically Alabama, Ms. Chafin and E.C. eventually came to join him, but the marriage degenerated and Mr. Chafin filed for divorce in Alabama Court.
As those proceedings went on, Ms. Chafin was deported.
She'd overstayed her visa and E.C. remained in Alabama with Mr. Chafin.
But then Ms. Chafin filed suit in federal court asking the judge to order that E.C. be returned to Scotland pursuant to the Hague Convention.
Ms. Chafin came back to the United States for a hearing, at the end of which, the District Court ruled that E.C.'s country of habitual residence was indeed Scotland and that Ms. Chafin could take her back.
Ms. Chafin and E.C. got on a plane headed to Scotland within hours.
Mr. Chafin appealed, but the Court of Appeals dismissed his case as moot because E.C. was in Scotland, the Court of Appeals thought that it was powerless to grant Mr. Chafin any remedy even if he were to win.
The District Court then ordered Mr. Chafin to reimburse Ms. Chafin for her attorney's fees and travel expenses to the tune of $94,000.
Now, the Constitution tells us that federal courts may only adjudicate real cases or controversies.
Federal courts do not engage in empty gestures, but so long as it's possible for a court to grant some effectual relief, there is still a case or controversy and the case is not moot.
Here, it is possible for courts to grant effectual relief to the winner.
Mr. Chafin seeks an order that E.C. be return to the United States.
Ms. Chafin argues that he will not win on that claim, but that argument goes to who is right on the merits.
The mootness issue is whether if Mr. Chafin is right, any court order remedy would be effective.
Now, on that point, Ms. Chafin argues that Mr. Chafin's requested remedy would not be effective because Scotland would ignore any U.S. order that E.C. be sent back, maybe.
But U.S. courts have the power to order people who have appeared before them to take certain actions even if they are outside the country and courts can back up those commands with sanctions.
So, an order that E.C. be return to the U.S. would bind Ms. Chafin and she might decide for a variety of reasons to comply.
She might refuse to comply of course, but that does not make this case moot.
Courts can issue orders even though it is unclear whether they will result in actual relief.
For example, a court can order a person to pay damages of $100,000 even though that person is broke.
As long a decision could have some impact, as long as the person might be able to pay something someday, the case is not moot.