504 U.S. 689 (1992), 91-367, Ankenbrandt v. Richards

Docket Nº:No. 91-367
Citation:504 U.S. 689, 112 S.Ct. 2206, 119 L.Ed.2d 468, 60 U.S.L.W. 4532
Party Name:Ankenbrandt v. Richards
Case Date:June 15, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 689

504 U.S. 689 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 2206, 119 L.Ed.2d 468, 60 U.S.L.W. 4532

Ankenbrandt

v.

Richards

No. 91-367

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1992

Argued March 31, 1992

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF

APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner brought this suit on behalf of her daughters in the District Court, alleging federal jurisdiction based on the diversity of citizenship provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and seeking monetary damages for alleged torts committed against the girls by their father and his female companion, the respondents here. The court granted respondents' motion to dismiss without prejudice, ruling in the alternative that it lacked jurisdiction because the case fell within the "domestic relations" exception to diversity jurisdiction and that its decision to dismiss was justified under the abstention principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. A domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction exists as a matter of statutory construction. Pp. 693-701.

(a) The exception stems from Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, 584, in which the Court announced in dicta, without citation of authority or discussion of foundation, that federal courts have no jurisdiction over suits for divorce or the allowance of alimony. The lower federal courts have ever since recognized a limitation on their jurisdiction based on that statement, and this Court is unwilling to cast aside an understood rule that has existed for nearly a century and a half. Pp. 693-695.

(b) An examination of Article III, § 2, of the Constitution and of Barber and its progeny makes clear that the Constitution does not mandate the exclusion of domestic relations cases from federal court jurisdiction. Rather, the origins of the exception lie in the statutory requirements for diversity jurisdiction. De La Rama v. De La Rama, 201 U.S. 303, 307. Pp. 695-697.

(c) That the domestic relations exception exists is demonstrated by the inclusion of the defining phrase, "all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity," in the pre-1948 versions of the diversity statute, by Barber's implicit interpretation of that phrase to exclude divorce and alimony actions, and by Congress' silent acceptance of this construction for nearly a century. Considerations of stare decisis have particular [112 S.Ct. 2208] strength in this context, where the legislative power is implicated, and Congress remains free to alter what this Court has done. Patterson v.

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McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 172-173. Furthermore, it may be presumed that Congress amended the diversity statute in 1948 to replace the law/equity distinction with § 1332's "all civil actions" phrase with full cognizance of the Court's longstanding interpretation of the prior statutes, and that, absent any indication of an intent to the contrary, Congress adopted that interpretation in reenacting the statute. Pp. 697-701.

2. The domestic relations exception does not permit a district court to refuse to exercise diversity jurisdiction over a tort action for damages. The exception, as articulated by this Court since Barber, encompasses only cases involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree. As so limited, the exception's validity must be reaffirmed, given the long passage of time without any expression of congressional dissatisfaction and sound policy considerations of judicial economy and expertise. Because this lawsuit in no way seeks a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree, the Court of Appeals erred by affirming the District Court's invocation of the domestic relations exception. Federal subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to § 1332 is proper in this case. Pp. 701-704.

3. The District Court erred in abstaining from exercising jurisdiction under the Younger doctrine. Although this Court has extended Younger abstention to the civil context, it has never applied the notions of comity so critical to Younger where, as here, no proceeding was pending in state tribunals. Similarly, while it is not inconceivable that, in certain circumstances, the abstention principles developed in Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, might be relevant in a case involving elements of the domestic relationship even when the parties do not seek divorce, alimony, or child custody, such abstention is inappropriate here, where the status of the domestic relationship has been determined as a matter of state law and, in any event, has no bearing on the underlying torts alleged. Pp. 704-706.

934 F.2d 1262 (CA 5 1991), reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 707. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined, post, p. 717.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether the federal courts have jurisdiction or should abstain in a case involving alleged torts committed by the former husband of petitioner and his female companion against petitioner's children, when the sole basis for federal jurisdiction is the diversity-of-citizenship provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

I

Petitioner Carol Ankenbrandt, a citizen of Missouri, brought this lawsuit on September 26, 1989, on behalf of her daughters L.R. and S.R. against respondents Jon A. Richards and Debra Kesler, citizens of Louisiana, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Alleging federal jurisdiction based on the diversity of citizenship provision of § 1332, Ankenbrandt's complaint sought monetary damages for alleged sexual and physical abuse of the children committed by Richards and Kesler. Richards is the divorced father of the children, [112 S.Ct. 2209] and Kesler his female companion.[1] On December 10, 1990, the District Court granted respondents' motion to dismiss this lawsuit.

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Citing In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593-594 (1890), for the proposition that

[t]he whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States, and not to the laws of the United States,

the court concluded that this case fell within what has become known as the "domestic relations" exception to diversity jurisdiction, and that it lacked jurisdiction over the case. The court also invoked the abstention principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), to justify its decision to dismiss the complaint without prejudice. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, No. 89-4244, 1990 WL 211545 (ED La. Dec. 10, 1990). The Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, No. 91-3037 (CA5 May 31, 1991), judgt. order reported at 934 F.2d 1262.

We granted certiorari limited to the following questions: "(1) Is there a domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction? (2) If so, does it permit a district court to abstain from exercising diversity jurisdiction over a tort action for damages?[2] and (3) Did the District Court in this case err in abstaining from exercising jurisdiction under the doctrine

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of Younger v. Harris, [supra]?" 502 U.S. 1023 (1992). We address each of these issues in turn.

II

The domestic relations exception upon which the courts below relied to decline jurisdiction has been invoked often by the lower federal courts. The seeming authority for doing so originally stemmed from the announcement in Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582 (1859), that the federal courts have no jurisdiction over suits for divorce or the allowance of alimony. In that case, the Court heard a suit in equity brought by a wife (by her next friend) in federal district court pursuant to diversity jurisdiction against her former husband. She sought to enforce a decree from a New York state court, which had granted a divorce and awarded her alimony. The former husband thereupon moved to Wisconsin to place himself beyond the New York courts' jurisdiction so that the divorce decree there could not be enforced against him; he then sued for divorce in a Wisconsin court, representing to that court that his wife had abandoned him and failing to disclose the existence of the New York decree. In a suit brought by the former wife in Wisconsin [112 S.Ct. 2210] Federal District Court, the former husband alleged that the court lacked jurisdiction. The court accepted jurisdiction and gave judgment for the divorced wife.

On appeal, it was argued that the District Court lacked jurisdiction on two grounds: first, that there was no diversity of citizenship, because, although divorced, the wife's citizenship necessarily remained that of her former husband; and second, that the whole subject of divorce and alimony, including a suit to enforce an alimony decree, was exclusively ecclesiastical at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and that the Constitution therefore placed the whole subject of divorce and alimony beyond the jurisdiction of the United States courts. Over the dissent of three Justices, the Court rejected both arguments. After an exhaustive survey of

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the authorities, the Court concluded that a divorced wife could acquire a citizenship separate from that of her former husband and that a suit to enforce an alimony decree rested within the federal courts' equity jurisdiction. The Court reached these conclusions after summarily dismissing the former husband's contention that the case involved a subject matter outside the federal courts' jurisdiction. In so stating, however, the Court also announced the following limitation on federal jurisdiction:

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