323 U.S. 77 (1944), 51, Barber v. Barber

Docket Nº:No. 51
Citation:323 U.S. 77, 65 S.Ct. 137, 89 L.Ed. 82
Party Name:Barber v. Barber
Case Date:December 04, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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323 U.S. 77 (1944)

65 S.Ct. 137, 89 L.Ed. 82

Barber

v.

Barber

No. 51

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 4, 1944

Argued November 9, 1944

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE

Syllabus

1. Upon review here of a judgment of a court of one State refusing to give full faith and credit to a judgment of a court of another, the sufficiency of the grounds of refusal is for this Court to determine. P. 81.

2. Upon review here of a decision of a court of one State involving the law of another, a federal right being asserted, it is the duty of this Court to determine for itself the law of such other State. P. 81.

3. A duly authenticated judgment of a court of general jurisdiction of another State is prima facie evidence of the jurisdiction of the court to render it and of the right which it purports to adjudicate. P. 86.

4. A money judgment of a court of North Carolina for arrears of alimony, not, by its terms, conditional and on which execution was directed to issue, held, under the law of that State, not subject to

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modification or recall, and, under the Federal Constitution and the Act of May 26, 1790, as amended, entitled to full faith and credit. P. 86.

180 Tenn. 353, 175 S.W.2d 324, reversed.

Certiorari, 322 U.S. 719, to review the reversal of a decree in a suit to enforce a judgment of a court of another State for arrears of alimony.

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question for decision is whether the Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a suit brought upon a North Carolina judgment for arrears of alimony, rightly denied full faith and credit to the judgment on the ground that it lacks finality because, by the law of North Carolina, it is subject to modification or recall by the court which entered it.

In 1920, petitioner secured in the Superior Court of North Carolina for Buncombe County, a court of general jurisdiction, a judgment of separation from respondent, her husband. The judgment directed payment to petitioner of $200 per month alimony, later reduced to $160 per month. In 1932, respondent stopped paying the prescribed alimony. In 1940, on petitioner's motion in the separation suit for a judgment for the amount of the alimony accrued and unpaid under the earlier order, the Superior Court of North Carolina gave judgment in her favor. It adjudged that respondent was indebted to petitioner in [65 S.Ct. 138] the sum of $19,707.20, under its former order, that petitioner have and recover of respondent that amount, and "that execution issue therefor."

Petitioner then brought the present suit in the Tennessee Chancery Court to recover on the judgment thus obtained.

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Respondent, by his answer, put in issue the finality, under North Carolina law, of the judgment sued upon, and the cause was submitted for decision on the pleadings and a stipulation that the court might consider as duly proved the records in two prior appeals in the North Carolina separation proceeding "upon the authority of which the judgment sued upon in the present case is predicated," and that the opinions of the Supreme Court of North Carolina upon these appeals, Barber v. Barber, 216 N.C. 232, 4 S.E.2d 447; 217 N.C. 422, 8 S.E.2d 204, should be "admissible in evidence to prove or tend to prove the North Carolina law."

The Tennessee Chancery Court held the judgment sued upon to be entitled to full faith and credit, and gave judgment for petitioner accordingly. The Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed on the ground that the judgment was without the finality entitling it to credit under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, Art. IV, § 1. 180 Tenn. 353, 175 S.W.2d 324. We granted certiorari because of an asserted conflict with Sistare v. Sistare, 218 U.S. 1, and because of the importance of the issue raised. 322 U.S. 719.

The constitutional command is that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and Judicial Proceedings of every other State." Article IV, § 1 of the Constitution also provides that "Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof." And Congress has enacted that judgments

shall have such faith and credit given to them in every court within the United States as they have by law or usage in the courts of the State from which they are taken.

Act of May 26, 1790, c. 11, 1 Stat. 122, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 687.

In Sistare v. Sistare, supra, 218 U.S. 16, 17, this Court considered whether a decree for future alimony, brought to a sister

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state, was entitled to full faith and credit as to installments which had accrued, but which had not been reduced to a further judgment. The Court held that a decree for future alimony is, under the Constitution and the statute, entitled to credit as to past due installments, if the right to them is "absolute and vested," even though the decree might be modified prospectively by future orders of the court. See also Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582. The Sistare case also decided that such a decree was not final, and therefore not entitled to credit, if the past due installments were subject retroactively to modification or recall by the court after their accrual. See also Lynde v. Lynde, 181 U.S. 183, 187.

The Sistare case considered the applicability of the full faith and credit clause only as to decrees for future alimony some of the installments of which had accrued. The present suit was not brought upon a decree of that nature, but upon a money judgment for alimony already due and owing to the petitioner, as to which execution was ordered to issue. The Supreme Court of Tennessee applied to this money judgment the distinction taken in the Sistare case as to decrees for future alimony. It concluded that, by the law of North Carolina, the judgment for the specific amount of alimony already accrued was subject to modification by the court which awarded it, that it was not a final judgment under the rule of the Sistare case, and therefore was not entitled to full faith and credit.

As we are of opinion that the Tennessee Supreme Court erroneously construed the law of North Carolina as to the finality of the judgment sued upon here, it is unnecessary to consider whether the rule of the Sistare case as to decrees for future alimony is also applicable to judgments subsequently entered for arrears of alimony. Compare Lynde v. Lynde, supra, 187, where this Court distinguished between a decree for arrears of alimony and one for future alimony some of the installments of which had accrued.

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See also Audubon v. Shufeldt, 181 U.S. 575, 577-578. For the same reason, it is unnecessary to consider whether a [65 S.Ct. 139] decree or judgment for alimony already accrued, which is subject to modification or recall in the forum which granted it but is not yet so modified, is entitled to full faith and credit until such time as it is modified. Cf. Levine v. Levine, 95 Or. 94, 109-113, 187 P. 609; Hunt v. Monroe, 32 Utah 428, 440, 91 P. 269, and compare Milwaukee County v. White Co., 296 U.S. 268, 275-276, and cases cited.

We assume for present purposes that petitioner's judgment for accrued alimony is not entitled to full faith and credit if, by the law of North Carolina, it is subject to modification. The refusal of the Tennessee Supreme Court to give credit to that judgment because of its nature is a ruling upon a federal right, and the sufficiency of the grounds of denial is for this Court to decide. Magnolia Petroleum Co. v. Hunt, 320 U.S. 430, 443, and cases cited. And, in determining the applicable law of North Carolina, this Court reexamines the issue with deference to the opinion of the Tennessee court, although we cannot accept its view of the law of North Carolina as conclusive. This is not a case where a question of local law is peculiarly within the cognizance of the local courts in which the case arose. The determination of North Carolina law can be made by this Court as readily as by the Tennessee courts, and, since a federal right is asserted, it is the duty of this Court, upon an independent investigation, to determine for itself the law of North Carolina. See Adam v. Saenger, 303 U.S. 59, 64, and cases cited.

We are thus brought to the question whether, by the law of North Carolina, the judgment which petitioner has secured in that...

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