The US Supreme Court doesn’t make a habit of involving itself in family law cases – just one percent of cases presented to the Supreme Court are heard – though when it does, their decisions usually have ground-breaking consequences, and not only for those directly involved.
Some of the most notable cases seem inconceivable today in that they generally aren’t criminal matters, for instance Loving v. Virginia (1967) – newlyweds Mildred and Richard Loving had to choose between a year in jail or 25 years in exile for the crime of miscegenation, i.e. interracial marriage – in which the Supreme Court ruled in their favour and consequently voided anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states.
Roe v. Wade (1973) is another prominent case in which the Supreme Court was involved – it’s one of the most famous cases of all time – and changed the way states are able to regulate abortion, though new provisions are still being made today.
Family law cases are generally cases involving adoption, divorce – rates are on the rise – and child custody; here are two recent cases of note.
Capobianco v. Brown, also known as ‘Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl’
Matt and Melanie Capobianco adopted a baby girl, Veronica, after both her mother and father had relinquished their parental rights.
When Veronica’s father, serviceman Dusten Brown, returned from service in Iraq he decided he wanted custody over the child, despite having relinquished his rights as a parent before Veronica’s birth.
Because Brown didn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on, his lawyers decided to get creative and use the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) – Brown is Native American – as a means of contesting custody of the child.
Whilst most child custody cases are decided by the court with regard to ‘the best interests of the child’, a legal standard that prevails in most courts around the world, this makes Capobianco v. Brown a very interesting case because the court decided in favour of Brown, which was widely believed not to be in the best interests of the child.
Veronica’s adoptive parents contested the ruling in 2013 and were awarded custody of Veronica that year.
Chafin v. Chafin
An international child custody case – international child custody cases are naturally more complex than domestic cases because there’s more than one standard of rules to take into account in addition to a wealth of additional factors – Chafin v. Chafin involves a custodial dispute over a five year old child between her American father and Scottish mother.
The child was born in Germany with dual United States and United Kingdom citizenship, relocated to Scotland with the mother whilst the father was deployed to Afghanistan and moved to Alabama in the US with both her mother and father after he returned from duty.
After marital and visa issues arose, the child flew back to Scotland with her mother after an order from the federal district court was secured, by the mother, to take the child to Scotland.
This decision, one that was made in accordance with the ‘Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction’ and determined by the court’s ruling that the child’s ‘habitual residence’ was Scotland, was followed by the mother filing for Scottish custody.
A Supreme Court ruling is still being awaited, though this particular case, Chafin v. Chafin, highlights just how complex family law cases often are, and how, although heart-wrenching at the best of times, fortunate most families are to have their cases heard locally and without having to deal with international laws that increase the complexity, and the potential for unfair decisions, that characterises this particular custodial case.