Court Retains Jurisdiction Over Child Custody Dispute Involving A Parent Leaving The Federal Witness Protection Program

The domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction, which divests federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees, is generally well-known.  But the Witness Security Reform Act of 1984 (the “Program Statute”), which deals with the federal witness protection program, creates a rare exception to the exception by expressly creating a right of action for domestic relations matters in federal courts where the Program Statute applies.

In Garmhausen v. Corridan, 07-CV-2565 (ARR)(LB) (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2014), Judge Allyne R. Ross had to decide whether a child custody dispute involving a parent who had left protective custody would nevertheless benefit from the Program Statute’s federal right of action. Plaintiff, the father of the child at issue, argued that the Program Statute no longer applied once the mother left protective custody, and therefore the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.  The government, appearing on behalf of the mother, argued that the court had jurisdiction–even though the mother had been removed from the witness protection program—because the terms of the Program Statute continued to apply.  According to Judge Ross, this was a matter of first impression.

The statute makes itself applicable “to any person provided protection” under the program.  The government argued that “once someone is ‘provided’ protection, their lives change in immeasurable ways—e.g., new identities, cessation of communication with loved ones, removal to a new state—and they do not typically revert to their former identities or lives when any physical protection ends.”  Id. at 5.  In essence, the government’s position was that the court retained jurisdiction because once a witness is in the program, he or she never leaves.  Judge Ross agreed, finding as a policy matter that it was important to extend the Program Statute’s protections “because of the ongoing relationship that continues in place between Corridan and the Program.”