August 13, 2012 / 9:20 PM / in 7 years

Supreme Court to hear international child custody dispute

(Reuters) - The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a U.S. Army sergeant’s challenge to a lower court ruling that awarded custody of his 5-year-old daughter to her mother in Scotland under an international treaty.

Jeffrey Chafin, the sergeant, is seeking to reverse a federal appeals court decision letting his daughter Eris remain in Scotland with her mother, Lynne Chafin, from whom he had filed for divorce.

According to court papers, Lynne Chafin, a Scottish national, had lived with her daughter in Scotland since 2007, apart from her husband because of his job, and in February 2010 traveled to visit him in Madison, Alabama, in a failed effort to save their marriage.

Lynne Chafin later returned to Scotland upon overstaying her visa and sought the return of their daughter after an Alabama state judge awarded custody to Jeffrey Chafin.

U.S. District Judge Inge Prytz Johnson in Huntsville, Alabama, ruled in October 2011 that the daughter be returned to Scotland, calling it her “habitual residence” under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February dismissed Jeffrey Chafin’s appeal of Johnson’s ruling, saying the issue was moot because the girl by then was already in Scotland.

Jeffrey Chafin said this decision was at odds with other federal appeals courts and would effectively deny custodial rights to a parent of a child wrongfully abducted to another country.

Stephen Cullen, a lawyer from Scotland representing Lynne Chafin, said the Hague Convention is often raised in cross-border custody battles involving military service personnel. “You’ve got this child who’s like a ping pong ball, and no one knows who’s supposed to decide the custody question,” he said.

Michael Manely, a lawyer for Jeffrey Chafin, said a decision could affect many service personnel who are stationed around the globe and separated from children they had with non-U.S. nationals.

“The 11th Circuit said, if a child leaves the jurisdiction, we’re powerless,” he said. “That’s different from the rest of the world as it relates to the respect that different courts have for each others’ determinations as to jurisdiction.”

A decision is expected in the Supreme Court’s coming term, which ends in June 2013.

The case is Chafin v. Chafin, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-1347.

Reporting By Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman

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