354 U.S. 416 (1957), 302, Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt

Docket Nº:No. 302
Citation:354 U.S. 416, 77 S.Ct. 1360, 1 L.Ed.2d 1456
Party Name:Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt
Case Date:June 24, 1957
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 416

354 U.S. 416 (1957)

77 S.Ct. 1360, 1 L.Ed.2d 1456

Vanderbilt

v.

Vanderbilt

No. 302

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1957

Argued April 22-23, 1957

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK AND

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, COUNTY OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

A husband and wife separated while living in California, and the wife moved to New York, where she has since resided. Subsequently, the husband sued for divorce in Nevada. The wife was not served with process, and did not appear in the Nevada court, but it entered a final decree of divorce, providing that both husband and wife were "freed and released from the bonds of matrimony and all duties and obligations thereof." Subsequently, the wife sued in New York for separation from the husband and alimony. The New York court did not have personal jurisdiction over the husband, but it sequestered his property in the State and entered an order directing the husband to make support payments to the wife.

Held: since the Nevada court had no personal jurisdiction over the wife, it had no power to extinguish any right she had under New York law to financial support from her husband, its decree was void insofar as it purported to do so, and the New York judgment did not violate the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Pp. 416-419.

1 N.Y.2d 342, 135 N.E.2d 553, affirmed.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., petitioner, and Patricia Vanderbilt, respondent, were married in 1948. They separated in 1952 while living in California. The wife moved to New York, where she has resided since February, 1953. In March of that year, the husband filed suit for

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divorce in Nevada. This proceeding culminated, in June, 1953, with a decree of final divorce which provided that both husband and wife were "freed and released from the bonds of matrimony and all the duties and obligations thereof. . . ."1 The wife was not served with process in Nevada, and did not appear before the divorce court.

[77 S.Ct. 1362] In April, 1954, Mrs. Vanderbilt instituted an action in a New York court praying for separation from petitioner and for alimony. The New York court did not have personal jurisdiction over him, but, in order to satisfy his obligations, if any, to Mrs. Vanderbilt, it sequestered his property within the State.2 He appeared specially and, among other defenses to the action, contended that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution3 compelled the New York court to treat the Nevada divorce as having ended the marriage and as having destroyed any duty of support which he owed the respondent. While the New York court found the Nevada decree valid and held that it had effectively dissolved the marriage, it nevertheless entered an order, under § 1170-b

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of the New York Civil Practice Act,4 directing petitioner to make designated support payments to respondent. 207 Misc. 294, 138 N.Y.S.2d 222. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the support order. 1 N.Y.2d 342, 135 N.E.2d 553. Petitioner then applied to this Court for certiorari, contending that § 1170-b, as applied, is unconstitutional because it contravenes the Full Faith and Credit Clause.5 We granted certiorari, 352 U.S. 820.

In Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, this Court decided that a Nevada divorce court, which had no personal jurisdiction over the wife, had no power to terminate a husband's obligation to provide her support as required in a preexisting New York separation decree. The factor which distinguishes the present case from Estin is that here, the wife's right to support had not been reduced to judgment prior to the husband's ex parte divorce. In our opinion, this difference is not material on the question before us. Since the wife was not subject to its jurisdiction, the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which she had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant.6 Here, the Nevada divorce court

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was as powerless to cut off the wife's support right as it would have been to order the husband to pay alimony if the wife had brought the divorce [77 S.Ct. 1363] action and he had not been subject to the divorce court's jurisdiction. Therefore, the Nevada decree, to the extent it purported to affect the wife's right to support, was void, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not obligate New York to give it recognition.7

Petitioner claims that this case is governed by Thompson v. Thompson, 226 U.S. 551. For the reasons given in a concurring opinion in Armstrong v. Armstrong, 350 U.S. 568, 575 at 580-581, the Thompson case, insofar as it held that an ex parte divorce destroyed alimony rights, can no longer be considered controlling.

Affirmed.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE took to part in the consideration or decision of this case.

FRANKFURTER, J., dissenting

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

The question in this case is whether Nevada, which was empowered to grant petitioner a divorce without personal jurisdiction over respondent that must be respected, by command of the Constitution, by every other State, Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287,

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was at the same time empowered, by virtue of its domiciliary connection with petitioner, to make, incidental to its dissolution of the marriage, an adjudication denying alimony to which sister States must also give full faith and credit. Whatever the answer to the question may be, Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, does not supply it. What the Court now states to be "not material" was crucial to the decision in that case, namely, the prior New York support order, which the Court held Nevada was required to respect by virtue of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, § 1, of the Constitution. That this fact was crucial to the Court's decision in that case is made clear by the Court's reference to the prior New York judgment in its two statements of the question presented more than a half dozen times throughout the course of its opinion. The Court rightly regarded the fact as crucial because of the requirement of Art. IV, § 1, that Nevada give full faith and credit to the prior New York "judicial Proceedings."

The Court now chooses to regard the existence of a prior New York support order as "not material," holding for the first time that

the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which [respondent] had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant [citing for this proposition Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 726-727].

We have thus reached another stage -- one cannot say it is the last -- in the Court's tortuous course of constitutional adjudication relating to dissolution of the marriage status. Whereas previously only the "matrimonial domicile" could grant an ex parte divorce and alimony, now any domiciliary State can grant an ex parte divorce, but no State, even if domiciliary, can grant alimony ex parte when it grants a divorce ex parte.

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It will make for clarity to give a brief review of the singular history of matrimonial [77 S.Ct. 1364] law in this Court since the decision in Atherton v. Atherton, 181 U.S. 155. In that case, the Court held that a sister State had to give full faith and credit to a divorce granted, on the basis of constructive service, by the matrimonial domicile to a deserted husband. In Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562, the Court refused to extend Atherton, holding that a State need not give full faith and credit to a divorce granted ex parte to a deserted husband by a domiciliary State other than the matrimonial domicile. These precedents were applied to the incidental claim to alimony in Thompson v. Thompson, 226 U.S. 551, where the Court held that full faith and credit was to be given to the refusal of the matrimonial domicile to grant alimony when it granted a divorce on the basis of substituted service. Under the pre-Williams law, then, the same jurisdictional rules applied to the dissolution of the marriage tie and to an incidental adjudication denying alimony. Not only the adjudication of divorce, but also the adjudication denying alimony by the matrimonial domicile was required to be given full faith and credit despite the lack of personal jurisdiction over the other spouse.

In Williams v. North Carolina I, 317 U.S. 287, the scope of Art. IV, § 1, was found to require full faith and credit to be given to a divorce granted ex parte by any State where one spouse was domiciled. The limitation of ex parte divorces to the matrimonial domicile imposed by Haddock v. Haddock was rejected as being based on "fiction." Williams v. North Carolina II, 325 U.S. 226,, made it clear that full faith and credit was required to be given only if the granting State was actually a domiciliary State, that the finding on this issue could not be foreclosed by the decreeing State, and that it could be readjudicated later by another State. But this restriction of Williams II was considerably weakened

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when the Court held that a sister State, no matter how great its interest because of its own social policy, was precluded from relitigating the existence of the jurisdictional facts underlying a divorce when both parties had merely made an appearance in the original divorce proceeding. Sherrer v. Sherrer, 334 U.S. 343, and Coe v. Coe, 334 U.S. 378. This was so even if the collateral attack were made by a third party who had not...

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