During a single Term, the Court normally hears oral arguments on the merits in somewhere around seventy-five cases.  In some of these cases, the Justices tackle the kind of hot-button issues that we are most likely to associate with the Court and its docket:  in just this Term, for example, the Justices will take on affirmative action, same-sex marriage, voting rights, and the patentability of human genes.  But the bread and butter of the Court’s docket are lower-profile cases, many of which make their way to the Court because the courts of appeals (which are populated with smart and experienced judges) have reached different conclusions on the same principle of law – a scenario colloquially known as a “circuit split.”

In these cases that have divided the courts of appeals, you might expect that the Court will also regard the cases as difficult, requiring an extended discussion to explain its reasoning or spurring disagreement among the Justices.  In many of these cases, you would be wrong:  although the Justices are sometimes deeply divided, they frequently seem to regard them as “easy” – notwithstanding the circuit split.

The Court’s decision in Chafin v. Chafin, issued on Tuesday, appears to qualify as one of the easy ones.  As I explained in my preview of the case in December, the case arises out of an international child custody dispute between an American father, Sgt. Jeff Chafin, and a Scottish mother, Lynne Chafin.  Under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a parent whose child is abducted to another country can file a lawsuit in that country seeking to have the child returned to her home country, so that courts there can resolve any custody disputes.   Pursuant to the Convention, Mrs. Chafin filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Alabama, asking that court to issue an order returning her daughter to Scotland.  When the district court ruled in her favor, the mother immediately left the country with her daughter.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the child’s return to Scotland rendered Sgt. Chafin’s appeal of the district court’s order moot.  The Court’s efficient answer?  It does not.  In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court explained that the case would be moot “only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party.”  “As long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of the litigation,” the Court continued, “the case is not moot.”  That standard is met in this case, the Court reasoned, because the parents “continue to vigorously contest the question of where their daughter will be raised.”  At this stage of the game, the father is simply looking for “typical appellate relief” – a decision from the Eleventh Circuit reversing the trial court.

The Court was unmoved by Mrs. Chafin’s argument that the case is moot because the district court cannot order the child’s return, and – even if it could – Scotland would “simply ignore it.”  The Court dismissed the first point as having nothing to do with mootness, and instead going only to the likelihood that Sgt. Chafin will ultimately win on the merits.  The second point was, in the Court’s view, equally irrelevant:  courts in the United States could still issue orders to Mrs. Chafin and, if necessary, sanction her.  Moreover, the opinion observed dryly, “[n]o law of physics prevents [the child’s] return from Scotland.”  And, the Court added, the case is not moot for the further reason that Sgt. Chafin is seeking to have the district court’s order requiring him to pay Mrs. Chafin nearly one hundred thousand dollars in fees and expenses overturned.

The Court then turned to the policy issue that was also the focus of a concurring opinion filed by Justice Ginsburg and joined by Justices Scalia, and Breyer:  the Convention’s emphasis on the child’s speedy return, and its desire to avoid “shuttling children back and forth between parents and across international borders.”  But those concerns, the Court concluded, actually weighed in favor of a ruling that the case is not moot: if appeals were automatically moot once the child was returned, courts might be more likely to issue a stay of a return order so that the losing parent could appeal.  And the three concurring Justices suggested that the need for expedited Convention proceedings and the desire to preserve the right to appeal might be best balanced by using a procedure similar to the ones used in England and Wales, where return orders can be appealed (and courts will generally stay the child’s return) only when a court determines that the parent seeking the appeal has “a real prospect of success.”

Whether Sgt. Chafin will ultimately win on the merits of his case remains to be seen.  But as a result of Tuesday’s decision, he will at least have a chance to try.

The decision, in Plain English:

Under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a parent whose child is abducted to another country can file a lawsuit in that country seeking to have the child returned to her home country, so that courts in that home country can resolve any custody disputes.   In this case, a Scottish mother filed a lawsuit under the Convention in the United States, asking a federal trial court to order the child’s return to Scotland.  When that court did so, the mother immediately left the United States for Scotland with her daughter.  The issue before the Court was whether the child’s father could appeal the trial court’s order when his daughter had already returned to Scotland.  The Court unanimously held that he could.  All that is required for him to do so, the Court explained, is some real stake, even a small one, in the outcome of the case, and he has that:   he is simply asking the intermediate appellate court to issue an order reversing the trial court’s ruling; he is also trying to have the trial court’s order requiring him to pay the mother’s attorney’s fees and expenses overturned.

Posted in Chafin v. Chafin, Everything Else

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion recap: Family law dispute not moot after child’s return, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 20, 2013, 9:00 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/02/opinion-recap-family-law-dispute-not-moot-after-childs-return/