Michael Manely, of The Manely Firm on the Marietta Square, had the rare opportunity to argue a family law case before the U.S. Supreme Court in December.
This week, the high court returned a decision — a unanimous 9-0 vote in favor of Manely’s client, U.S. Army Sgt. Jeffrey Chafin, who is in a custody dispute with his estranged Scottish wife, Lynne Chafin, over their daughter, Eris.
“It’s that kind of case that has such momentous impact for families,” Manely said. “And the fact that they came back unanimous was outstanding.”
The Supreme Court affirmed that lower courts are not powerless to act when a parent takes a child across international borders.
“If I was wrong and didn’t do well, a whole bunch of kids would be at risk,” Manely said. “It has implications for every child in America.”
The case addresses the ability of a U.S. court to order a child returned to the country if it finds that the child has been wrongfully removed.
It stemmed from Jeffrey Chafin’s failed appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said a decision was “moot” because the mother had already taken the girl out of the court’s reach to Scotland.
Manely and his client determined that the appeals court’s inability to act was a flaw in international custody cases, leading to the appeal to the high court.
“We asked the Supreme Court to fix that problem,” Manely said. “And they did that.”
A major shift
The justices ruled that U.S. courts do not lose the ability to act within the confines of international law regarding custody disputes just because the child has been taken abroad.
The Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court should have given consideration to Jeffrey Chafin’s appeal rather than summarily dismissing it.
“I’m more than happy. I’m very elated,” Chafin said Wednesday. “After talking and yelling and screaming for a year and a half, it was good that somebody has heard us. And more important, it’s who heard us. It’s a good day.”
Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals must now decide on Chafin’s appeal.
That process should begin soon, with a decision coming within the next couple of months, Manely said.
And even then, the case is far from finished. As Roberts noted in his opinion, while U.S. courts may order the girl’s return, the Scottish courts may just as easily ignore the command. That would further complicate the custody case.
But the resolution gained by a Supreme Court decision gives Chafin a renewed sense of optimism.
“The court will have to answer, where was she living?” Manely said. “There we can fight the custody.”
A rare case for high court
The Chafin case was only the second centered on family law to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the last dozen years, Manely said.
“There are so few family law cases in front of the court,” he said. “They are few and far between.”
But the draw for the Supreme Court to hear the case came from an assessment of lower courts’ reach in the face of international borders.
“A lot of externalities made this case very compelling,” Manely said. “It’s frightening that children can be taken out of country and courts can’t do anything about it.”
The Supreme Court’s decision may have implications for a variety of custody fights in which a parent or guardian may consider taking a child out of the country trying to circumvent American courts.
“I’ve got 20 cases like this around Atlanta right now,” Manely said. “Courts cannot afford to lose control of a child.
“This is the Supreme Court saying, ‘we’re pretty invested.’”
Details of the case
Jeffrey Chafin, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, married Lynne Chafin in 2006 while he was stationed in Germany. Their daughter, Eris, was born the following year. After Sgt. Chafin was deployed to Afghanistan in late 2007, Lynne Chafin took their daughter to live in Scotland.
In 2010, all three moved to Huntsville, Ala., but soon after the Chafins began divorce and custody proceedings. When Lynne Chafin was arrested later that year on domestic violence charges, immigration officials discovered she had overstayed her visa. She was deported in early 2011.
Eris initially stayed in the U.S., but a federal judge in Alabama said the mother could take her back to Scotland, saying it was the girl’s “habitual residence” under the international laws set forth in the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Within hours of the trial court’s decision in October 2011, Lynne took her daughter back to Scotland.
When Jeffrey Chafin went to the 11th Circuit, that court in February 2012 dismissed his appeal as moot because the girl had already been taken to a foreign country.
That decision sparked a drive to have the nation’s top court hear the case.
“I wanted to do whatever it took to be with my little girl,” Chafin said.
Preparing for Supreme Court
By August, the justices granted a hearing, and a month later set Dec. 5 as the day for oral arguments.
It was Manely’s second request to be heard by the Supreme Court. The justices had denied hearing a 2004 international custody case.
“Less than 1 percent of cases seeking Supreme Court review get review,” Manely said.
Preparation for the argument became a full-time effort for Manely and other members of the firm.
“It took three months of my life,” Manely said. “We started getting calls from big firms offering to work it for free,” Manely said. “One out of New York even offered $1 million in attorney time to work the case.”
Given the potential for the case having a broad impact on international law, multiple firms made offers to Chafin.
“It’s always the client’s decision on who he wants to handle the case,” Manely said. “Many pitched to him. God bless him, he decided to keep the case with us.”
But when it was all said and done, Chafin continued working with the small Marietta firm.
“He stuck with me,” Chafin said of Manely. “He’s been with me from the beginning. I didn’t want to bring in somebody who didn’t know the case.”
During the preparation for the Supreme Court argument, Manely drew on assistance from three separate law schools for mock trials. Included were professors and students from Georgia State University, University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University.
“As family law attorneys, we are in court often,” Manely said. “Most of what we do is respond to tough questions. So it wasn’t that different in terms of how we approached the arguments.”
By the time he found himself standing in front of the actual justices on Dec. 5, Manely said he had been thoroughly prepared.
“It was quite a scary proposition to put your neck on the line and go in front of them for the first time,” Manely said. “If I allowed myself to go down that road and be nervous, I would be nervous. I waited until after the argument was over to be nervous.”