Every lawyer dreams of arguing a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. For an attorney, it is like playing in the World Series or the Superbowl. Less than one percent of cases seeking Certiorary before the High Court are accepted. Family law cases are almost never heard by the nation’s highest court.
So it was with dumbfounded awe that I received the call one August afternoon last year that the Supreme Court of the United States of America had accepted certiorari on my case, Chafin v Chafin. It was with great trepidation that I learned that the Court wanted us to brief the case and be ready for argument on the last day of their term, December 5, 2012. Usually, the Court takes a much slower pace, but the Court wanted to fast track our case. I had just four months to get ready for the biggest challenge any lawyer can have.
Chafin is an international child abduction case, better known as a Hague proceeding. Sometimes when parents separate one parent takes the child to another country, or tries to. This was one of those cases. In Chafin, when our client, Sgt. First Class Jeff Chafin ended his 15 month deployment to Afghanistan he was assigned to Redstone Arsenal outside of Huntsville, Alabama. His wife and daughter, who had moved to Scotland during his deployment, came to the United States to live. Twelve months later, his wife was deported back to Scotland for overstaying her visa. She had applied for permanent residency but she hadn’t jumped through the last hoop. When the wife arrived in Scotland, she demanded her daughter’s return.
Despite all the evidence showing that mother intended that the child live in the US, the trial court allowed the child to be sent to Scotland. The Court of Appeals would not hear the appeal, contending that the case was moot since the child was no longer on United States soil. Other United States Courts of Appeal had decided this issue quite differently. The Supreme Court wanted to resolve this question for once and for all.
Working on the briefs and preparing for the argument was the most challenging legal work I had ever done. I had excellent help from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Georgia State University College of Law and Georgetown School of Law. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to these fantastic institutions.
In very short order, the big day arrived. The Supreme Court is as formal, regal and beautiful as you would hope our nation’s court would be. At 10:00 am, the Justices filed in from behind the red curtains and took their seats.
The Chief Justice callled my name. I began my presentation. Some advisors had recommended that I take an argumentative approach to the Justice’s questions, parrying them as though they were only designed to take me off my task. I decided to handle the opportunity quite differently. I thought that since the Court had accepted the case, the Justices had genuine questions that they had a right to have answered. Instead of shoving my agenda at them, I decided to do my best to answer their concerns. All their questions were excellent. They knew the material and the issues backwards and forwards. They cared deeply about the case and its implications. My 30 minutes passed quickly. And with that the Justices filed from the great court room and were gone. I was left with the congratulations of my team and onlookers and a memento provided by the Court, a hand cut quill pen.
Within two short months, the Justices issued their decision. We won 9 – 0. Every single Justice agreed with us that the United States does not lose jurisdiction just because a child is taken from our shores. Children all across America can sleep a little more soundly thanks to that decision.
My firm handles only family law but all family law. The international family law is certainly the penultimate work, particularly you get to argue before the Supreme Court. But the drive, the passion is universal to all of our cases: family law.
Michael Manely is the founding attorney of The Manely Firm, P.C., a law firm that specializes exclusively in family law. He has won arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, and has represented clients in both Georgia family courts and federal courts across the US.