Jessie Thompson v. Charles Thompson

Decision Date06 January 1913
Docket NumberNo. 45,45
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. William M. Lewin for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 552-555 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Joseph W. Cox, A. E. L. Leckie, and John A. Kratz, Jr., for appellee.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 555-557 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Pitney delivered the opinion of the court:

This is an appeal from a decree of the court of appeals of the District of Columbia, reversing a decree of the supreme court of the District in favor of the wife in a suit for maintenance, brought under § 980 of the District Code (act of March 3, 1901, 31 Stat. at L. 1346, chap. 854). The bill of complaint was filed July 29, 1907, and charged the husband with failing and refusing to maintain the complainant, and with cruel treatment of such character as to compel her to leave him. Upon the filing of the bill a subpoena to answer was issued and returned 'not found,' whereupon alias and pluries writs were successively issued and returned until November 18, 1907, when the husband was served with process. Meanwhile, and on September 3, 1907, he brought suit against the wife in the circuit court of Loudoun county, Virginia, for divorce a mensa et thoro, upon the ground that on June 13, 1907, the wife wilfully abandoned his bed and board and deserted him without cause, and that notwithstanding his repeated entreaties and endeavors to induce her to return, she had refused to do so. An order of publication having been made and published, the Virginia court, on October 19, 1907, made a decree granting to the husband a divorce a mensa et thoro. He thereafter, on being served as already mentioned with process in the wife's suit, filed a plea setting up the Virginia decree and the proceedings upon which it was rendered, as a bar to her action. This plea was, on hearing, overruled, the husband being allowed time in which to answer the bill. He answered, denying the wife's charges of cruelty, and setting up other matters pertaining to the merits, and also averred that his domicil, as well as the matrimonial domicil of the parties, was in Loudoun county, Virginia, and again pleaded the Virginia proceedings and decree as a bar to the wife's suit. The supreme court of the District, upon final hearing, held the Virginia divorce to be invalid, and made a decree awarding to the wife custody of an infant child born to the parties during the pendency of the proceedings, and requiring the husband to pay to the wife $75 per month for the maintenance of herself and the child, to forthwith pay to her the sum of $500 for counsel fees, and also to pay the costs of suit to be taxed. From this decree the husband appealed to the court of appeals of the District, which court reversed the decree and remanded the cause, with directions to enter an order vacating the decree and dismissing the bill. 35 App. D. C. 14.

The present appeal is based upon § 8 of the act of February 9, 1893, to establish a court of appeals for the District of Columbia, and for other purposes (27 Stat. at L. 436, chap. 74, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 573), which section gives a writ of error or appeal to review in this court any final judgment or decree of the court of appeals 'in all causes in which the matter in dispute, exclusive of costs, shall exceed the sum of five thousand dollars.' Appellee challenges our jurisdiction on the ground that the matter here in dispute does not exceed the sum mentioned.

Under the decree of the supreme court the payments of $75 per month for support of the wife and child were to commence on July 15, 1909. Supposing that decree to be now reinstated by a reversal of the decree of the court of appeals, the instalments already accrued would amount to considerably more than one half of the jurisdictional amount. The expectancy of life of the parties is clearly sufficient to make up the balance.

It is true that the obligation to make such payments for maintenance in the future, even when fixed by judicial decree, is not in the nature of a technical debt.

Section 980 of the District Code (31 Stat. at L. 1346, chap. 854), upon which the present action is based, enacts: 'Whenever any husband shall fail or refuse to maintain his wife and minor children, if any, although able so to do, the court, on application of the wife, may decree that he shall pay her periodically such sums as would be allowed to her as permanent alimony in case of divorce for the maintenance of herself and the minor children committed to her care by the court, and the payment thereof may be enforced in the same manner as directed in regard to such permanent alimony.' The matter of permanent alimony is dealt with in §§ 976, 977, and 978, the latter of which provides: 'After a decree of divorce in any case granting alimony and providing for the care and custody of children, the case shall still be considered open for any future orders in those respects.'

The statutory maintenance is thus assimilated to alimony, in that it is subject to be modified from time to time or even cut off entirely, in the event of a change in the circumstances of the parties; and it of course ceases wholly upon the death of the husband. See Lynde v. Lynde, 181 U. S. 183, 45 L. ed. 810, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 555; Audubon v. Shufeldt, 181 U. S. 575, 578, 45 L. ed. 1009, 1010, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 753; Lynde v. Lynde, 64 N. J. Eq. 736, 751, 58 L.R.A. 471, 97 Am. St. Rep. 692, 52 Atl. 694.

Nevertheless, such a decree clearly and finally settles the obligation of the husband to contribute to the support of the wife and offspring, and fixes the amount of contributions required for the present to fulfil that obligation. The future payments are not in any proper sense contingent or speculative, although they are subject to be increased, decreased, or even cut off, as just indicated.

The statute conferring jurisdiction on this court, while requiring that the matter in dispute shall exceed $5,000, does not require that it shall be of such a nature as to constitute (if the event be favorable) a technical debt of record. In Smith v. Whitney, 116 U. S. 167, 173, 29 L. ed. 601, 602, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 570, the matter in dispute was stated to be 'whether the petitioner is subject to a prosecution which may end in a sentence dismissing him from the service, and depriving him of a salary as paymaster general during the residue of his term as such, and as pay inspector afterwards, which, in less than two years, would exceed the sum of $5,000.' This court sustained the appellate jurisdiction. That case has been repeatedly cited upon the present point (Smith v. Adams, 130 U. S. 167, 175, 32 L. ed. 895, 898, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 566; South Carolina v. Seymour, 153 U. S. 353, 358, 38 L. ed. 742, 744, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 871; Simon v. House, 46 Fed. 317, 318; Chesapeake & D. Canal Co. v. Gring, 86 C. C. A. 530, 159 Fed. 662, 664); and its authority upholds our jurisdiction in the case before us.

The next question is whether the court of appeals was right in holding that the supreme court of the District erred in refusing to give credit to the Virginia decree.

Art. 4, § 1, of the Constitution, declares that 'full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may, by general laws, prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.' By § 905, Rev. Stat. (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 677), the mode in which such acts, records, and proceedings are to be proved was prescribed; and it was enacted that 'the said records and judicial proceedings, so authenticated, 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.' This latter clause finds its origin in the first act passed by Congress to carry into effect the constitutional mandate (act of May 26, 1790, chap. 11, 1 Stat. at L. 122, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 677); and, in an early case, it was held that the words 'every court within the United States' include the courts of the District of Columbia, and require those courts to give full faith and credit to the judicial proceedings of the several states when properly authenticated. Mills v. Duryee, 7 Cranch, 484, 485, 3 L. ed. 413.

But it is established that the full faith and credit clause, and the statutes enacted thereunder, do not apply to judgments rendered by a court having no jurisdiction of the parties or subject-matter, or of the res in proceedings in rem. D'Arcy v. Ketchum, 11 How. 165, 13 L. ed. 648; Thompson v. Whitman, 18 Wall. 457, 21 L. ed. 897; Reynolds v. Stockton, 140 U. S. 254, 35 L. ed. 464, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 773; Bigelow v. Old Dominion Copper Min. & S. Co. 225 U. S. 111, 134, 56 L. ed. 1009, 1024, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 641.

This subject, in its relation to actions for divorce, has been most exhaustively considered by this court in two recent cases: Atherton v. Atherton, 181 U. S. 155, 45 L. ed. 794, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 544; Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U. S. 562, 50 L. ed. 867, 26 Sup. Ct. Rep. 525, 5 Ann. Cas. 1. In the Atherton Case the matrimonial domicil was in Kentucky, which was also the domicil of the husband. The wife left him there and returned to the home of her mother in the state of New York. He began suit in Kentucky for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii because of her abandonment, which was a cause of divorce by the laws of Kentucky, and took such proceedings to give her notice as the laws of that state required, which included mailing of notice to the postoffice nearest her residence in New York. No response or appearance having been made by her, the Kentucky court proceeded to take evidence and grant to the hus- band an absolute decree of divorce. It was held that this decree was entitled to full faith and credit...

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