Greene v. Superior Court in and for City and County of San Francisco

Citation37 Cal.2d 307,231 P.2d 821
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date25 May 1951
Parties. S. F. 18236. Supreme Court of California, in Bank

Canfield & Westwick and John A. Westwick, all of Santa Barbara, for petitioner.

Sullivan, Roche, Johnson & Farraher, San Francisco, Heaney, Price, Postel & Parma and George Chadwick Jr., San Francisco, for respondent.

TRAYNOR, Justice.

Petitioner and Ellen Chamberlain Greene were married on August 28, 1940. There are two children of the marriage, Ellen C. Greene and Luther M. Greene, aged seven and five, respectively. On July 3, 1945, i Santa Barbara, California, petitioner and his wife entered into a separation agreement by which she received custody of the children subject to petitioner's right to have them visit him at reasonable times and for reasonable periods aggregating four months each year. On the same day, Ellen Greene secured an interlocutory decree of divorce from petitioner in the Superior Court of the County of Santa Barbara. The court approved the separation agreement and incorporated it into the decree. It awarded custody of the children to Ellen Greene subject to petitioner's visitation rights, 'as provided in said agreement so above ratified and confirmed.' The final decree was entered on July 5, 1946, and on the same day Ellen Greene married Joseph Martin, Jr. She and her husband and the children then moved to San Francisco and have resided there continuously until the present time.

On February 24, 1950, Ellen Martin filed a petition for letters of guardianship of the children in the Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco. In her petition, she alleged that she had been awarded custody of the children by the decree of the Santa Barbara court, subject to petitioner's visitation rights, that the children had been permitted to visit petitioner in compliance with that decree, that their manner of living during such visits 'is inconsistent with their normal routine of life and * * * is detrimental to the welfare of said minors,' and that the 'circumstances and conditions of said minors, as well as those of petitioner herein (mother of said minors), and of Luther Greene (the father of said minors), have been changed and altered since said July 3, 1945.' She prayed for appointment as guardian of the persons and estates of the children and for an order 'awarding to her the custody and control of said minor children, and each of them; and that, in said order, their said father, Luther Greene, be * * * accorded the right to have said minors visit and reside with him during one month of each of said summer school vacations. * * *'

Petitioner was personally served in the matter and filed an answer and objection to the petition, denying most of the material allegations thereof and asserted as an affirmative defense that only the Santa Barbara court had jurisdiction to modify the provisions of its custody award and that the San Francisco court was therefore without jurisdiction to entertain the petition. Concurrently with the filing of his answer, petitioner filed a petition for modification of the final decree of divorce in the Superior Court of the County of Santa Barbara. In the petition, filed March 28, 1920, he prayed for an order awarding him 'the care, custody and control of such said minor children during all of their summer school vacations and at reasonable times during their other school holidays, and * * * that the Petitioner herein have joint supervision of the care, welfare and education of the such said children.' On May 1, 1950, at an oral hearing before the San Francisco court, petitioner objected to the jurisdiction of that court to hear and determine the petition of Ellen Martin insofar as it pertained to the guardianship of the children's persons. No objection was made to the court's jurisdiction to appoint a guardian of their estates. The objections were overruled by an order entered May 10, 1950, and petitioner now applies for a writ of prohibition to restrain the court from proceeding further in connection with the petition of Ellen Martin for letters of guardianship.

The order overruling petitioner's objections to the jurisdiction of the San Francisco court is not appealable. Probate Code, § 1630; Code Civ.Proc. § 963. His remedy by appeal from any order the court may enter after a hearing on the merits of Ellen Martin's petition is not adequate. '(T)o compel petitioner to submit to an unwarranted retrial of the cause, and then appeal from the judgment if adverse to it, would not afford speedy or adequate relief.' Tomales Bay Oyster Corp. v. Superior Court, 35 Cal.2d 389, 392, 217 P.2d 968, 970. A petition for writ of prohibition is therefore a proper proceeding for questioning the jurisdiction of the San Francisco court.

Ordinarily the superior court of the county of a minor's residence or temporary domicile has jurisdiction to appoint a guardian. Probate Code, § 1440. Petitioner contends, however, that it has no jurisdiction when the superior court of another county has made an award of custody of the minor in a divorce decree. He relies on the rule that when two or more courts in this state have concurrent jurisdiction, the court first assuming jurisdiction retains it to the exclusion of all other courts in which the action might have been initiated. Browne v. Superior Court, 16 Cal.2d 593, 597-598, 107 P.2d 1, 131 A.L.R. 276; Myers v. Superior Court, 75 Cal.App.2d 925, 929, 172 P.2d 84; Gorman v. Superior Court, 23 Cal.App.2d 173, 177, 72 P.2d 774. It is therefore necessary to determine how far the rule applies to the jurisdiction of the superior court over the custody of minors in divorce or guardianship proceedings.

The rule making exclusive the jurisdiction first acquired is particularly apposite to prevent unseemly conflict between courts that might arise if they were free to make contradictory custody awards at the same time. See, Milani v. Superior Court, 61 Cal,App.2d 463, 466-467, 143 P.2d 402, 935; cf., Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co., 314 U.S. 118, 134-136, 62 S.Ct. 139, 86 L.Ed. 100. Even when one court has appointed a guardian and modification of the right to custody is thereafter sought in the court of another county, it has generally been held in the interests of orderly administration of justice that no other court has jurisdiction in habeas corpus or guardianship proceedings to interfere with the guardian's custody so long as the guardianship continues. Browne v. Superior Court, 16 Cal.2d 593, 597-598, 107 P.2d 1, 131 A.L.R. 276; Murphy v. Superior Court, 84 Cal. 592, 596, 24 P. 310; Guardianship of Danneker, 67 Cal. 643, 645, 8 P. 514; Ex parte Miller, 109 Cal. 643, 646, 42 P. 428; In re, Guardianship of Kimball, 80 Cal.App.2d 884, 887, 182 P.2d 612; Milani v. Superior Court, 61 Cal.App.2d 463, 466-467, 143 P.2d 402; In re, Guardianship of Sturges, 30 Cal.App.2d 477, 501, 86 P.2d 905.

'The jurisdiction of the court in this respect is a continuing one, and though no motion, petition or other such incidental proceeding may be pending at any particular time, the court still has jurisdiction over the guardianship. No other court, we believe, has power to interfere with that continuing control over the guardian * * *.' Browne v. Superior Court, 16 Cal.2d 593, 598, 107 P.2d 1, 3, 131 A.L.R. 276.

We find no reason to hold that the continuing jurisdiction of the divorce court over its custody awards is not also exclusive. 'A decree awarding custody to a parent claiming adversely to the other parent differs only in formal respects from a decree appointing one parent guardian of the person of the child. The effect in either case is to confer upon the party appointed the care and custody of the child.' Titcomb v. Superior Court, 220 Cal. 34, 41, 29 P.2d 206, 210; see also, In re Guardianship of Cameron, 66 Cal.App.2d 884, 887, 153 P.2d 385; In re, Guardianship of Phillips, 60 Cal.App.2d 832, 836, 141 P.2d 773; Smith v. Smith, 31 Cal.App.2d 272, 276, 87 P.2d 863; 37 Cal.L.Rev. 455, 470, 473.

The reasons for not recognizing a continuing exclusive jurisdiction when the original custody decree has been entered in the court of another state do not apply when the original decree has been entered in this state. If the child is present or domiciled in California it is essential for the protection of his welfare that the courts of this state have jurisdiction over his custody. Sampsell v. Superior Court, 32 Cal.2d 763, 778, 197 P.2d 739. There must be some court with authority to protect the child's interest in the state where he is. When the original decree has been entered in this state, however, there will always be a local court with power to act. If change of residence within the state makes it desirable that the court of another county have jurisdiction to modify the decree, the objective may be attained by a change of venue. Cooney v. Cooney, 25 Cal.2d 202, 206-207, 153 P.2d 334. If it is still necessary or convenient that a guardian be appointed, despite the custody award, see, Probate Code § 1440; In re Guardianship of Phillips, 27 Cal.2d 384, 388, 164 P.2d 481, conflict in jurisdiction may be avoided by bringing proceedings in the court having jurisdiction over the original custody decree. In re Coughlin's Guardianship, 101 Cal.App.2d 727, 226 P.2d 46; In re Guardianship of Denny, 97 Cal.App.2d 763, 765, 218 P.2d 792; see also, In re Johnson's Estate, 101 Cal.App. 110, 120, 281 P. 435.

It has been recognized that 'to avoid interminable and vexatious litigation it is generally required that before modification or vacation of * * * a (custody) decree 'there must be a change of circumstances arising after the original decree is entered, or at least a showing that the facts were unknown to the party urging them at the time of the prior order * * *. " Sampsell v. Superior Court, 32 Cal.2d 763, 779, 197 P.2d 739, 750. Similarly,...

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