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Supreme Court supports Army father in custody case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court was unanimous in ruling Tuesday that an American soldier could still pursue custody of his daughter in American courts even though a lower court had allowed the mother to take the child to her native Scotland.

An appeals court said that the child’s residence rendered Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Lee Chafin’s lawsuit moot, because international child custody suits must be conducted in the child’s ‘‘country of habitual residence.’’

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But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was wrong to rule that Chafin’s only remedy was in Scottish courts. He had a right to appeal the lower court’s determination of where the child should live, he said.

‘‘Such return does not render this case moot; there is a live dispute between the parties over where their child will be raised, and there is a possibility of effectual relief for the prevailing parent,’’ Roberts wrote.

Chafin and Scottish-born Lynne Chafin were married in her country in 2006, and their daughter was born the next year. They lived together in Germany until he was deployed to Afghanistan, and mother and daughter moved to Scotland.

Jeffrey Chafin was transferred to Alabama in 2009 and, even though the marriage was in trouble, the family reunited there.

They agreed to divorce in 2010, Lynne Chafin was deported after her visa expired, and then she filed her petition to have Eris, their daughter, join her in Scotland.

‘There is a possibility of effectual relief for the prevailing parent.’

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A federal judge in Alabama agreed with Lynne Chafin and declined to grant a stay of the order. They left that day.

When Jeffrey Chafin appealed, the 11th Circuit dismissed his petition. It said that under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, to which the United States is one of more than 80 signatories, there was nothing left for US courts to decide.

Roberts said Jeffrey Chafin may not prevail in American courts, and even if he does, it does not guarantee the return of Eris, now 6. But he said those uncertainties did not render the case moot.

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