218 U.S. 1 (1910), 7, Sistare v. Sistare

Docket Nº:No. 7
Citation:218 U.S. 1, 30 S.Ct. 682, 54 L.Ed. 905
Party Name:Sistare v. Sistare
Case Date:May 31, 1910
Court:United States Supreme Court

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218 U.S. 1 (1910)

30 S.Ct. 682, 54 L.Ed. 905

Sistare

v.

Sistare

No. 7

United States Supreme Court

May 31, 1910

Argued November 1, 1909

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ERRORS

OF THE STATES OF CONNECTICUT

Syllabus

Past due installments of a judgment for future alimony rendered in one state are within the protection of the full faith and credit clause of the federal Constitution unless the right to receive the alimony is so discretionary with the court rendering the decree that, even in the absence of application to modify the decree, no vested right exists.

Unless a decision of this Court in terms overrules a former decision, it will, if possible, be so construed as to harmonize with, and not overrule such prior decision, and so held that Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, establishing the general rule that a judgment for alimony as to past installments was within the full faith and credit clause was not overruled by Lynde v. Lynde, 181 U.S. 187, but the latter case established the exception as to such judgments where the alimony is so discretionary with the court that a vested right to receive the same does not exist.

The settled doctrine in New York in 1899 was that no power existed to modify a judgment for alimony absolute in terms unless conferred by statute, and a judgment for future alimony entered in 1899 under § 1762-1773, Code of Civil Procedure, is absolute until modified by the court rendering it; such a judgment, therefore, as to past due

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installments, falls under the general rule that it is entitled to full faith and credit in the courts of another state. Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, followed; Lynde v. Lynde, 181 U.S. 17, distinguished.

Although the full faith and credit clause may not extend to mere modes of procedure, a judgment absolute in terms and enforceable in the state where rendered must, under the full faith and credit clause of the federal Constitution, be enforced by the courts of another state even though the modes of procedure to enforce its collection may not be the same in both states.

80 Conn. 1 reversed.

The facts, which involve the extent to which, under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution of the United States, effect must be given, in the courts of another state, to a judgment for alimony on which arrears are due, are stated in the opinion.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1899, by a judgment of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the plaintiff in error was granted a separation from bed and board from her husband, the defendant in error, and he was ordered to pay her weekly the sum of $22.50 for the support of herself and the maintenance and education of a minor child. The judgment, omitting title, is copied in the margin.1

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[30 S.Ct. 683] In July, 1904 at which time none of the installments of alimony had been paid, the wife commenced this action in the Superior Court of New London County, Connecticut, to recover the amount then in arrears of the decreed alimony. The cause was put at issue and was heard by the court. As stated by the trial judge, in a "finding" by him made:

The defendant made the following claims of law as to the judgment to be rendered in this action:

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(a) That the judgment rendered by the Supreme Court of the State of New York, in requiring the future payment of $22.50 per week, did not constitute a final judgment for a fixed sum of money, which is enforceable and collectible in this action.

(b) That said judgment, being subject to modification by the court which granted it, is not a judgment which the courts of this state will enforce.

(c) That the requirement that said sums of money should be paid as aforesaid does not constitute a debt or obligation from the defendant to the plaintiff which can be enforced in this action.

(d) That said judgment requiring the said weekly payments cannot be enforced in any other way than according to the procedure prescribed in the statutes of the State of New York, and cannot be enforced in this action.

(e) That the judgment which is sought to be enforced in this action is not a final judgment, entitled to full faith and credit in this state by virtue of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States.

(f) That the judgment which is sought to be enforced in this action will not be enforced by the courts of this state through comity.

(g) That the facts will not support a judgment for the plaintiff.

The court, however, adjudged in favor of the plaintiff, and awarded her the sum of $5,805, the arrears of alimony at the commencement of the action.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Errors (80 Conn. 1) reversed the judgment and remanded the cause "for the rendition of judgment in favor of the defendant;" and such a judgment, the record discloses, was subsequently entered by the trial court. This writ of error was prosecuted.

The Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut reached the conclusion that the power conferred upon a New York

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court to modify a decree for alimony by it rendered extended to overdue and unsatisfied installments as well as those to accrue in the future; that hence decrees for future alimony, even as to installments after they had become past due, did not constitute debts of record, and were not subject to be collected by execution, but could only be enforced by the special remedies provided in the law, and were not susceptible of being made the basis of judgments in the State of New York in another court than the one in which the decree for alimony had been made. Guided by the interpretation thus given to the New York law, and the character of the decree for future alimony which was based thereon, it was decided that the New York judgment for alimony which was sought to be enforced, even although the installments sued for were all past due, was not a final judgment which it was the duty of the courts of Connecticut to enforce in and by virtue of the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution of the United States. [30 S.Ct. 684] While the ruling of the court was, of course, primarily based upon the interpretation of the New York law, the ultimate ruling as to the inapplicability of the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution was expressly rested upon the decision of this Court in Lynde v. Lynde, 181 U.S. 187.

To sustain her contention that the action of the court below was in conflict with the duty imposed upon it by the full faith and credit clause, the plaintiff in error, by her assignments, in effect challenges the correctness of all the propositions upon which the court below rested its action, and virtually the defendant in error takes issue in argument as to these contentions. In disposing of the controversy, however, we shall not follow the sequence of the various assignments of error, or consider all the forms of statement in which the contentions of the parties are pressed in argument, but come at once to two fundamental questions which, being determined, will dispose of all the

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issues in the case. Those inquiries are: 1st. Where a court of one state has decreed the future payment of alimony, and when an installment or installments of the alimony so decreed have become due and payable and are unpaid, is such a judgment as to accrued and past-due alimony ordinarily embraced within the scope of the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution of the United States so as to impose the constitutional duty upon the court of another state to give effect to such judgment? 2d. If, as a general rule, the full faith and credit clause does apply to such judgments, is the particular judgment under review exceptionally taken out of that rule by virtue of the nature and character of the judgment, as determined by the law of the State of New York, in and by virtue of which it was rendered? We shall separately consider the questions.

First. The application, as a general rule, of the full faith and credit clause to judgments for alimony as to past-due installments.

An extended analysis of the principles involved in the solution of this proposition is not called for, since substantially the contentions of the parties are based upon their divergent conceptions of two prior decisions of this Court (Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, and Lynde v. Lynde, supra), and an analysis of those cases will therefore suffice. For the plaintiff in error, it is insisted that the case of Barber v. Barber conclusively determines that past-due installments of a judgment for future alimony, rendered in one state, are within the protection of the full faith and credit clause, while the defendant in error urges that the contrary is established by the ruling in Lynde v. Lynde, and that, if the Barber case has the meaning attributed to it by the plaintiff in error, that case must be considered as having been overruled by Lynde v. Lynde.

Substantially the controversy in Barber v. Barber was

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this: in the year 1847, the Court of Chancery of New York granted Huldah B. Barber a separation from Hiram Barber, and directed the payment of alimony in quarterly installments. Although the separation was decreed to be forever, the power to modify was reserved by a provision that the parties might at any time thereafter, by their joint petition, apply to the court to have the decree modified or discharged. It was provided that unpaid installments of alimony should bear interest, "and that execution might issue therefor toties quoties." The husband failed to pay any of the alimony, and removed to Wisconsin, where he procured an absolute divorce. Subsequently an action was brought by Mrs. Barber upon the common law side of the District Court of the United States in the Territory of Wisconsin, to recover the arrears of alimony, but relief was denied "for the reason that the remedy for the recovery of alimony was in a...

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