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International child custody dispute heads to Supreme Court

Under "normal" circumstances, Tennessee parents who become embroiled in a child custody or relocation dispute will have their cases handled in a state court -- usually in the county where the child resided for the past six months.

There is an exception, however, for child custody cases in which one parent is accused of having abducted a child to or from the U.S. Though somewhat rare, these cases are governed by the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (an international treaty signed by the United States and 86 other nations worldwide), which means that the federal courts can assert jurisdiction.

Rarer still is it when the U.S. Supreme Court takes a break from its customary hiatus and grants cert on a petition in the middle of summer. Yet that's exactly what the court recently did in an international custody dispute involving a U.S. Army sergeant and his 5-year-old daughter, who is currently living in Scotland with his ex-wife.

That story started more than 5 years ago, when an American serviceman met and subsequently married a Scottish national while stationed in Germany. The couple had a child together but due to the sergeant's military duties, the wife and daughter lived in Scotland. The separation and other issues eventually led to problems in the marriage, which led the wife to travel to the United States with her daughter in a last-ditch effort to reconcile with her husband.

When reconciliation failed, the husband tried to get a U.S. court to grant him custody. Last October, however, a federal judge ruled that the Hague Convention's rules required the child to be returned to Scotland with her mother. The father appealed this decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- which denied the request saying that an appeal would be moot since the child was already in Scotland.

The question the court will be considering after it hears oral arguments from attorneys for the parties in December is this: Does an appeal becomes moot (an issue which the various circuit courts of appeal are split on) when a child returns to his or her home country in a Hague Convention case?

We'll continue to monitor this child custody case and plan to provide an update once the court issues its decision sometime next year.

Source: ABA Journal, "Supreme Court to Hear Army Sergeant's Bid for the Return of His Daughter," Debra Cassens Weiss, Aug. 21, 2012

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