Originally created 02/14/98

Judge rules against family court orders



An Augusta federal judge nullified Friday a South Carolina judge's demand that a German mother move to Aiken County with her daughters by Monday or lose custody.

U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. granted Christine Lops' request that Aiken County Family Court Judge Peter Nuessle be prevented from enforcing orders in the case which Judge Bowen already ruled on. The case is under appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

"I find that there is an absolute and irreconcilable conflict between the Aiken County Family Court proceedings and this court's order and judgment enforcing the terms and intent of the Hague Convention," Judge Bowen wrote.

Ms. Lops petitioned the Hague Convention in 1995 seeking the return of her daughters, Carmen and Claire, contending they were wrongfully abducted from Germany by their father, Michael Lops, and his mother, Anne Harrington. The Hague Convention is an international treaty outlining legal procedures when parents allege parental kidnapping across national borders.

Carmen and Claire were found Nov. 5 at Ms. Harrington's home in Martinez and placed in a shelter operated by the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Services until Judge Bowen gave custody to Ms. Lops.

On Dec. 22, Judge Bowen ruled that the girls had been wrongfully taken from Germany and concealed for 2 1/2 years, and that the girls should be returned to Ms. Lops. The issue of custody belonged to the German courts to determine, Judge Bowen ruled.

Mr. Lops' and Ms. Harrington's attorneys appealed that decision to the federal appeals court. Meanwhile, the attorneys succeeded in blocking Ms. Lops' attempts to withdraw the Hague Convention litigation in Judge Nuessle's court. He ruled Jan. 27 that he had jurisdiction in the case and that Ms. Lops must move to South Carolina with her daughters by Monday or lose custody to Mr. Lops or the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

Friday morning, attorneys for Mr. Lops and Ms. Harrington tried to convince Judge Bowen that Judge Nuessle's order should stand because he rightly has jurisdiction over the child-custody issue. The attorneys told Judge Bowen that if Mr. Lops and Ms. Harrington win at the federal appeals court, Judge Nuessle would have total jurisdiction in the entire case.

"This argument is without merit," Judge Bowen wrote in his order. Child custody goes to the heart of the Hague Convention, he wrote. "Indeed, the express and implied purpose of the Hague Convention is to avoid the very situation presented by (this) case."

It's wrong to force Ms. Lops to litigate the same case again in state court and, "More importantly, Carmen and Claire have already been uprooted twice in the past four months," Judge Bowen wrote.

Mr. Lops and Ms. Harrington "should not be permitted to circumvent this court's judgment by seeking a resolution of custody issues in the South Carolina courts," according to the federal court order.

The federal appeals court will hear arguments in the case Feb. 26. Judge Bowen noted Friday that the appeals court could reach a decision quickly.