325 U.S. 226 (1945), 84, Williams v. North Carolina

Docket Nº:No. 84
Citation:325 U.S. 226, 65 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed. 1577
Party Name:Williams v. North Carolina
Case Date:May 21, 1945
Court:United States Supreme Court

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325 U.S. 226 (1945)

65 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed. 1577



North Carolina

No. 84

United States Supreme Court

May 21, 1945

Argued October 13, 1944



1. A man and a woman, domiciled in North Carolina, left their spouses in North Carolina, obtained decrees of divorce in Nevada, married, and returned to North Carolina to live. Prosecuted in North Carolina for bigamous cohabitation, they pleaded the Nevada divorce decrees in defense, but were convicted.

Held: that, upon the record, the judgments of conviction were not invalid as denying the Nevada divorce decrees the full faith and credit required by Art. IV, § 1 of the Constitution. Pp. 234, 236.

2. A decree of divorce rendered in one State may be collaterally impeached in another by proof that the court which rendered the decree had no jurisdiction, even though the record of the proceedings in that court purports to show jurisdiction. P. 229.

3. Under our system of law, judicial power to grant a divorce -- jurisdiction, strictly speaking -- is founded on domicil. P. 229.

4. As to the truth or existence of a fact, like that of domicil, upon which depends the power to exert judicial authority, a State not a party to the exertion of such judicial authority in another State, but seriously affected by it, has a right, when asserting its own unquestioned authority, to ascertain the truth or existence of that crucial fact. P. 230.

5. Punishment of a person for an act as a crime, when ignorant of the facts making it so, does not involve a denial of due process. P. 238.

6. The prior decision of this Court in this case, Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287, did not foreclose a second trial upon the issue of domicil. P. 239.

224 N.C. 183, 29 S.E.2d 744, affirmed.

Certiorari, 322 U.S. 725, to review a judgment affirming judgments of conviction of bigamous cohabitation.

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FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

[65 S.Ct. 1094] This case is here to review judgments of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, affirming convictions for bigamous cohabitation,1 assailed on the ground that full faith and credit, as required by the Constitution of the United States, was not accorded divorces decreed by one of the courts of Nevada. Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287, decided an earlier aspect of the controversy. It was there held that a divorce granted by Nevada, on a finding that one spouse was domiciled in Nevada, must be respected in North Carolina, where Nevada's finding of domicil was not questioned, though the other spouse had neither appeared nor been served with process in Nevada and though recognition of such a divorce offended the policy of North Carolina. The record then before us did not present the question whether North Carolina had the power

to refuse full faith and credit to Nevada divorce decrees because, contrary to the findings of the Nevada court, North Carolina finds that no bona fide domicil was acquired in Nevada.

Williams v. North Carolina, supra, at 302. This is the precise issue which has emerged after retrial of the cause following our reversal. Its obvious importance brought the case here. 322 U.S. 725.

The implications of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution,2 first received the sharp

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analysis of this Court in Thompson v. Whitman, 18 Wall. 457. Theretofore, uncritical notions about the scope of that Clause had been expressed in the early case of Mills v. Duryee, 7 Cranch 481. The "doctrine" of that case, as restated in another early case, was that

the judgment of a state court should have the same credit, validity, and effect in every other court in the United States, which it had in the state where it was pronounced.

Hampton v. McConnel, 3 Wheat. 234, 235. This utterance, when put to the test, as it was in Thompson v. Whitman, supra, was found to be too loose. Thompson v. Whitman made it clear that the doctrine of Mills v. Duryee comes into operation only when, in the language of Kent, "the jurisdiction of the court in another state is not impeached, either as to the subject matter or the person." Only then is "the record of the judgment . . . entitled to full faith and credit." 1 Kent, Commentaries (2d Ed., 1832) *261 n.b. The essence of the matter was thus put in what Thompson v. Whitman adopted from Story:

The Constitution did not mean to confer [upon the States] a new power or jurisdiction, but simply to regulate the effect of the acknowledged jurisdiction over persons and things within their territory.3

18 Wall. 457, 462. In short, the Full Faith and Credit Clause puts the Constitution behind a judgment, instead of the too fluid, ill defined concept of "comity."4

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But the Clause does not make a sister-State judgment a judgment in another State. The proposal to do so was rejected [65 S.Ct. 1095] by the Philadelphia Convention. 2 Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 447, 448.5 "To give it the force of a judgment in another state, it must be made a judgment there." McElmoyle v. Cohen, 13 Pet. 312, 325. It can be made a judgment there only if the court purporting to render the original judgment had power to render such a judgment. A judgment in one States is conclusive upon the merits in every other State, but only if the court of the first State had power to pass on the merits -- had jurisdiction, that is, to render the judgment.

It is too late now to deny the right collaterally to impeach a decree of divorce made in another state by proof that the court had no jurisdiction, even when the record purports to show jurisdiction. . . .

It was "too late" more than forty years ago. German Savings & Loan Society v. Dormitzer, 192 U.S. 125, 128.

Under our system of law, judicial power to grant a divorce -- jurisdiction, strictly speaking -- is founded on domicil. Bell v. Bell, 181 U.S. 175; Andrews v. Andrews, 188 U.S. 14. The framers of the Constitution were familiar with this jurisdictional prerequisite, and, since 1789, neither this Court nor any other court in the English-speaking world has questioned it. Domicil implies a nexus between person and place of such permanence as to control the creation of legal relations and responsibilities of the utmost significance. The domicil of one spouse within a State gives power to that State, we have held, to dissolve

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a marriage wheresover contracted. In view of Williams v. North Carolina, supra, the jurisdictional requirement of domicil is freed from confusing refinements about "matrimonial domicil," see Davis v. Davis, 305 U.S. 32, 41, and the like. Divorce, like marriage, is of concern not merely to the immediate parties. It affects personal rights of the deepest significance. It also touches basic interests of society. Since divorce, like marriage, creates a new status, every consideration of policy makes it desirable that the effect should be the same wherever the question arises.

It is one thing to reopen an issue that has been settled after appropriate opportunity to present their contentions has been afforded to all who had an interest in its adjudication. This applies also to jurisdictional questions. After a contest, these cannot be relitigated as between the parties. Forsyth v. Hammond, 166 U.S. 506, 517; Chicago Life Ins. Co. v. Cherry, 244 U.S. 25, 30; Davis v. Davis, supra. But those not parties to a litigation ought not to be foreclosed by the interested actions of others, especially not a State which is concerned with the vindication of its own social policy and has no means, certainly no effective means, to protect that interest against the selfish action of those outside its borders. The domiciliary origin should not be bound by an unfounded, even if not collusive, recital in the record of a court of another State. As to the truth or existence of a fact, like that of domicil, upon which depends the power to exert judicial authority, a State not a party to the exertion of such judicial authority in another State, but seriously affected by it, has a right, when asserting its own unquestioned authority, to ascertain the truth or existence of that crucial fact.6

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These considerations of policy are equally applicable whether power was assumed by the court of the first State or claimed after inquiry. This may lead, no doubt, to conflicting determinations of what judicial power is founded upon. Such conflict is inherent in the practical application of the concept of domicil in the context of our federal system.7 See Worcester County Trust Co. v. Riley, 302 U.S. 292; Texas v. Florida, 306 U.S. 398; District of Columbia v. Murphy, 314 U.S. 441. What was said in Worcester County Trust Co. v. Riley, supra, is pertinent here.

Neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the full faith and credit clause . . . requires uniformity in the decisions of the courts of different states as to the place of domicil, where the exertion of state power is dependent upon domicil within its boundaries.

302 U.S. 292, 299. If a finding by the court of one State that domicil in another State has been abandoned were conclusive upon the old domiciliary State, the policy of each State in matters of most intimate concern could be subverted by the policy of every other State. This Court has long ago denied the existence of such destructive power. The issue has a far reach. For domicil is the foundation of probate jurisdiction, precisely as it is that of divorce. The ruling in Tilt v. Kelsey, 207 U.S. 43, regarding the probate of a will is equally applicable to a sister-State divorce decree:

The full faith and credit due to the proceedings of the New Jersey court do not require that the courts of New York shall be bound by its adjudication on the question of domicil. On the contrary, it is open to the courts of any state, in the...

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