Supreme Court Weighs in on Family Law Matter Involving Custody Dispute

by Justin O’Dell

Most family law cases are decided on State, rather than Federal, law and also rarely involve issues arising under the U.S. Constitution.  As a result, it is extraordinarily rare to have the Supreme Court of the United States weigh in on a domestic case.  On February 19, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court did just that, issuing an opinion in Chafin v. Chafin.

The dispute centered on international custody laws which are governed by Federal laws and also by laws set forth by the Hague Convention.  The cases are generally litigated in the Hague and in the Federal Courts.  In this matter, Mr. Chafin, a soldier returning from service in Afghanistan, and Ms. Chafin, born in Scotland, but living in Alabama, were being divorced in Alabama.  Mr. Chafin sought custody of their daughter in Alabama based on allegations of domestic violence and other parenting issues.  Ms. Chafin sought an order to leave with the child back to Scotland.

Ultimately, Ms. Chafin was granted permission to take the child to Scotland since that was the child’s habitual residence prior to the divorce.  She immediately made arrangements to leave.  Mr. Chafin sought to appeal, but was denied on the basis that it was moot since the child had already left to Scotland.  In agreeing to hear the case and listening to the arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern that a party could “leave immediately” after a favorable ruling even though the decision is not final under the U.S. legal system.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that although it is important that custody matters be decided expeditiously and without shuttling children back and forth, it is equally important that the parents have the rights afforded to them under the legal system.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the decision to return the child to Scotland should have been stayed to allow Mr. Chafin a chance to appeal.

Read more about the case here:

And the full opinion of the Supreme Court here: