317 U.S. 287 (1942), 29, Williams v. North Carolina

Docket Nº:No. 29
Citation:317 U.S. 287, 63 S.Ct. 207, 87 L.Ed. 279
Party Name:Williams v. North Carolina
Case Date:December 21, 1942
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 287

317 U.S. 287 (1942)

63 S.Ct. 207, 87 L.Ed. 279



North Carolina

No. 29

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 21, 1942

Argued October 20, 1942



1. Where a conviction in a criminal prosecution is based upon a general verdict that does not specify the ground on which it rests, and one of the grounds upon which it may rest is invalid under the Federal Constitution, the judgment cannot be sustained. Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359. P. 292.

2. A man and a woman went from North Carolina to Nevada and, after residing there for a time sufficient to meet the requirement of a Nevada statute, secured decrees from a Nevada court, divorcing them from their respective spouses in North Carolina, the State in which they had been married and domiciled. They then married each other in Nevada, returned to North Carolina and cohabited there as man and wife. Prosecuted under a North Carolina statute for bigamous cohabitation, they set up in defense the Nevada decrees. A general verdict was returned, after instructions permitting that the decrees be disregarded upon either of two grounds, (1) that

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a Nevada divorce decree based on substituted service, where the defendant made no appearance, could not be recognized in North Carolina, and (2) that the defendants went to Nevada, not to establish bona fide residence, but solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the laws of that State to obtain a divorce through a fraud upon the Nevada court.

Held: that, as it could not be determined on the record that the verdict was not based solely upon the first ground -- involving a construction and application of the Federal Constitution -- the review in this Court must be of that ground, leaving the other out of consideration. Pp. 289, 292.

3. It seems clear that § 9460, Nevada Comp.L. 1929, in requiring that the plaintiff in a suit for divorce shall have "resided" in the State for a designated period, means a domicil, as distinguished from a mere residence. P. 298.

4. Decrees of divorce are more than in personam judgments, involving, as they do, the marital status of the parties. P. 298.

5. Each State, by virtue of its command over its domiciliaries and its large interest in the institution of marriage, can alter within its own borders the marriage status of the spouse domiciled there, even though the other spouse be absent. There is no constitutional barrier if the form and nature of the substituted service meet the requirements of due process. P. 298.

6. Under the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the Act of May 26, 1790, where a decree of divorce, granted by a State to one who is at the time bona fide domiciled therein is rendered in a proceeding complying with due process, such decree, if valid under the laws of that State, is binding upon the courts of other States, including the State in which the marriage was performed and where the other party to the marriage was still domiciled when the divorce was decreed. Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562, overruled. P. 299.

7. In this case, the Court must assume that petitioners each had a bona fide domicil in Nevada, not that their Nevada domicil was a sham. P. 302.

8. The case does not present the question whether North Carolina has power to refuse full faith and credit to the Nevada divorce decrees because they were based on residence, rather than domicil, or because, contrary to the findings of the Nevada court, North Carolina finds that no bona fide domicil was acquired in Nevada. P. 302.

220 N.C. 445, 17 S.E.2d 769, reversed.

Certiorari, 315 U.S. 795, to review judgments affirming sentences for bigamous cohabitation.

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DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners were tried and convicted of bigamous cohabitation under § 4342 of the North Carolina Code,1 1939, and each was sentenced for a term of years to a state prison. The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of North Carolina. 220 N.C. 445, 17 S.E.2d 769. The case is here on certiorari. 315 U.S. 795.

Petitioner Williams was married to Carrie Wyke in 1916 in North Carolina and lived with her there until May, 1940. Petitioner Hendrix was married to Thomas Hendrix in 1920 in North Carolina and lived with him there until May, 1940. At that time, petitioners went to Las Vegas, [63 S.Ct. 209] Nevada and on June 26, 1940, each filed a divorce action in the Nevada court. The defendants in those divorce actions entered no appearance, nor were they served with process in Nevada. In the case of defendant Thomas Hendrix, service by publication was had by publication of the summons in a Law Vegas newspaper and by mailing a copy of the summons and complaint to his last post office address.2 In the case of defendant Carrie Williams

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a North Carolina sheriff delivered to her in North Carolina a copy of the summons and complaint. A decree of divorce was granted petitioner Williams by the Nevada court on August 26, 1940, on the grounds of extreme cruelty, the court finding that

the plaintiff has been and now is a bona fide and continuous resident of the County of Clark, Nevada, and had been such resident for more than six weeks immediately preceding the commencement of this action in the manner prescribed by law.3

The Nevada court granted petitioner Hendrix a divorce on October 4, 1940, on the grounds of willful neglect and extreme cruelty, and made the same finding as to this petitioner's bona fide residence in Nevada as it made in the case of Williams. Petitioners were married to each other in Nevada on October 4, 1940. Thereafter, they returned to North Carolina, where they lived together until the indictment was returned. Petitioners pleaded not guilty, and offered in evidence exemplified copies of the Nevada proceedings, contending that the divorce decrees and the Nevada marriage were valid in North Carolina as well as in Nevada. The State contended that, since neither of the defendants in the Nevada actions was served in Nevada nor entered an appearance there, the Nevada decrees would not be recognized as valid in North Carolina. On this issue, the court charged the jury in substance that

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a Nevada divorce decree based on substituted service where the defendant made no appearance would not be recognized in North Carolina under the rule of Pridgen v. Pridgen, 203 N.C. 533, 166 S.E. 591. The State further contended that petitioners went to Nevada not to establish a bona fide residence, but solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the laws of that State to obtain a divorce through fraud upon that court. On that issue, the court charged the jury that, under the rule of State v. Herron, 175 N.C. 754, 94 S.E. 698, the defendants had the burden of satisfying the jury, but not beyond a reasonable doubt, of the bona fides of their residence in Nevada for the required time. Petitioners excepted to these charges. The Supreme Court of North Carolina, in affirming the judgment, held that North Carolina was not required to recognize the Nevada decrees under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution (Art. IV, § 1) by reason of Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562. The intimation in the majority opinion (220 N.C. pp. 460-464) that the Nevada divorces were collusive suggests that the second theory on which the state tried the case may have been an alternative ground for the decision below, adequate to sustain the judgment under the rule of Bell v. Bell, 181 U.S. 175 -- a case in which this Court held that a decree of divorce was not entitled to full faith and credit when it had been granted on constructive service by the courts of a state in which neither spouse was domiciled. But there are two reasons why we do not reach that issue in this case. In the first place, North Carolina does not seek to sustain [63 S.Ct. 210] the judgment below on that ground. Moreover, it admits that there probably is enough evidence in the record to require that petitioners be considered "to have been actually domiciled in Nevada." In the second place, the verdict against petitioners was a general one. Hence, even though the doctrine of Bell v. Bell, supra, were to be deemed applicable here, we cannot determine on this record

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that petitioners were not convicted on the other theory on which the case was tried and submitted -- viz., the invalidity of the Nevada decrees because of Nevada's lack of jurisdiction over the defendants in the divorce suits. That is to say, the verdict of the jury, for all we know, may have been rendered on that ground alone, since it did not specify the basis on which it rested. It therefore follows here, as in Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 368, that, if one of the grounds for conviction is invalid under the Federal Constitution, the judgment cannot be sustained. No reason has been suggested why the rule of the Stromberg case is inapplicable here. Nor has any reason been advanced why the rule of the Stromberg case is not both appropriate and necessary for the protection of rights of the accused. To say that a general verdict of guilty should be upheld though we cannot know that it did not rest on the invalid constitutional ground on which the case was submitted to the jury would be to countenance a procedure which would cause a serious impairment of constitutional rights. Accordingly, we cannot avoid meeting the Haddock v. Haddock issue in this case by saying that the petitioners acquired no bona fide domicil in Nevada. If the case had been tried and submitted on that issue only, we would have quite a different problem, as Bell v. Bell indicates. We have no occasion to meet that issue now, and we intimate no opinion on it. However it might be...

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