May v. Anderson

Decision Date18 May 1953
Docket NumberNo. 244,244
Citation345 U.S. 528,73 S.Ct. 840,97 L.Ed. 1221
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Ralph Atkinson, Salem, Ohio, F. W. Springer, East Palestine, Ohio, for appellant.

Mr. I. Engle, Waukesha, Wis., for appellee.

Mr. Justice BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether, in a habeas corpus proceeding attacking the right of a mother to retain possession of her minor children, an Ohio court must give full faith and credit to a Wisconsin decree awarding custody of the children to their father when that decree is obtained by the father in an ex parte divorce action in a Wisconsin court which had no personal jurisdiction over the mother. For the reasons hereafter stated, our answer is no.

This proceeding began July 5, 1951, when Owen Anderson, here called the appellee, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Probate Court of Columbiana County, Ohio. He alleged that his former wife, Leona Anderson May, here called the appellant, was illegally restraining the liberty of their children, Ronald, Sandra and James, aged, respectively, 12, 8 and 5, by refusing to deliver them to him in response to a decree issued by the County Court of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, February 5, 1947. With both parties and their children before it, the Probate Court ordered that, until this matter be finally determined, the children remain with their mother subject to their father's right to visit them at reasonable times.

After a hearing 'on the petition, the stipulation of counsel for the parties as to the agreed statement of facts, and the testimony,' the Probate Court decided that it was obliged by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution of the United States1 to accept the Wisconsin decree as binding upon the mother. Accordingly, proceeding to the merits of the case upon the issues presented by the stipulations of counsel, it ordered the children discharged from further restraint by her. That order has been held in abeyance and the children are still with her. The Court of Appeals for Columbiana County, Ohio, affirmed. 91 Ohio App. 557, 107 N.E.2d 358. The Supreme Court of Ohio, without opinion, denied a motion directing the Court of Appeals to certify its record for review, and dismissed an appeal on the ground that no debatable constitutional question was involved. 157 Ohio St. 436, 105 N.E.2d 648.

On appeal to this Court, we noted probable jurisdiction. Inasmuch, however, as neither the Court of Appeals nor the Supreme Court of Ohio relied upon the Ohio statute alleged to be the basis of the appeal, we have treated the appeal as a petition for a writ of certiorari, granted pursuant to 28 U.S.C. (Supp. V) § 2103, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2103, while continuing, for convenience, to refer to the parties as appellant and appellee.2

The parties were married in Wisconsin and, until 1947, both were domiciled there. After marital troubles developed, they agreed in December, 1946, that appellant should take their children to Lisbon, Columbiana County, Ohio, and there think over her future course. By New Year's Day, she had decided not to return to Wisconsin and, by telephone, she informed her husband of that decision.

Within a few days he filed suit in Wisconsin, seeking both an absolute divorce and custody of the children. The only service of process upon appellant consisted of the delivery to her personally, in Ohio, of a copy of the Wisconsin summons and petition. Such service is au- thorized by a Wisconsin statute for use in an action for a divorce but that statute makes no mention of its availability in a proceeding for the custody of children.3 Appellant entered no appearance and took no part in this Wisconsin proceeding which produced not only a decree divorcing the parties from the bonds of matrimony but a decree purporting to award the custody of the children to their father, subject to a right of their mother to visit them at reasonable times. Appellant contests only the validity of the decree as to custody. See Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561, and Kreiger v. Kreiger, 334 U.S. 555, 68 S.Ct. 1221, 92 L.Ed. 1572, recognizing the divisibility of decrees of divorce from those for payment of alimony.

Armed with a copy of the decree and accompanied by a local police officer, appellee, in Lisbon, Ohio, demanded and obtained the children from their mother. The record does not disclose what took place between 1947 and 1951, except that the children remained with their father in Wisconsin until July 1, 1951. He then brought them back to Lisbon and permitted them to visit their mother. This time, when he demanded their return, she refused to surrender them.

Relying upon the Wisconsin decree, he promptly filed in the Probate Court of Columbiana County, Ohio, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus now before us. Under Ohio procedure that writ tests only the immediate right to possession of the children. It does not open the door for the modification of any prior award of custody on a showing of changed circumstances. Nor is it available as a procedure for settling the future custody of children in the first instance.

'It is well settled that habeas corpus is not the proper or appropriate action to determine, as between parents, who is entitled to the custody of their minor children.

'The agreed statement of facts disclosed to the Court of Appeals that the children were in the custody of their mother. There being no evidence that the appellant had a superior right to their custody, that court was fully warranted in concluding that the children were not illegally restrained of their liberty.' In re Corey, 145 Ohio St. 413, 418, 61 N.E.2d 892, 894—895.4

The narrow issue thus presented was noted but not decided in People of State of New York ex rel. Halvey v. Halvey, 330 U.S. 610, 615—616, 67 S.Ct. 903, 906, 907, 91 L.Ed. 1133. There a mother instituted a suit for divorce in Florida. She obtained service on her absent husband by publica- tion and he entered no appearance. The Florida court granted her a divorce and also awarded her the custody of their child. There was, therefore, inherent in that decree the question 'whether in absence of personal service the Florida decree of custody had any binding effect on the husband; * * *.' Id., 330 U.S. at page 615, 67 S.Ct. at page 906. We were not compelled to answer it there and a decision on it was expressly reserved.

Separated as our issue is from that of the future interests of the children, we have before us the elemental question whether a court of a state, where a mother is neither domiciled, resident nor present, may cut off her immediate right to the care, custody, management and companionship of her minor children without having jurisdiction over her in personam. Rights far more precious to appellant than property rights will be cut off if she is to be bound by the Wisconsin award of custody.

'(I)t is now too well settled to be open to further dispute that the 'full faith and credit' clause and the act of Congress passed pursuant to it5 do not entitle a judgment in personam to extraterritorial effect if it be made to appear that it was rendered without jurisdiction over the person sought to be bound.' Baker v. Baker, Eccles & Co., 242 U.S. 394, 401, and see 403, 37 S.Ct. 152, 155, 61 L.Ed. 386; Thompson v. Whitman, 18 Wall. 457, 21 L.Ed. 897; D'Arcy v. Ketchum, 11 How. 165, 13 L.Ed. 648.

In Estin v. Estin, supra, and Kreiger v. Kreiger, supra, this Court upheld the validity of a Nevada divorce obtained ex parte by a husband, resident in Nevada, insofar as it dissolved the bonds of matrimony. At the same time, we held Nevada powerless to cut off, in that proceeding, a spouse's right to financial support under the prior decree of another state.6 In the instant case, we recognize that a mother's right to custody of her children is a personal right entitled to at least as much protection as her right to alimony.

In the instant case, the Ohio courts gave weight to appellee's contention that the Wisconsin award of custody binds appellant because, at the time it was issued, her children had a technical domicile in Wisconsin, although they were neither resident nor present there.7 We find it unnecessary to determine the children's legal domicile because, even if it be with their father, that does not give Wisconsin, certainly as against Ohio, the personal jurisdiction that it must have in order to deprive their mother of her personal right to their immediate possession.8

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio, accordingly, is reversed and the cause is remanded to it for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice CLARK, not having heard oral argument, took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, concurring.

The views expressed by my brother JACKSON make it important that I state, in joining the Court's opinion, what I understand the Court to be deciding and what it is not deciding in this case.

What is decided—the only thing the Court decides—is that the Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require Ohio, in disposing of the custody of children in Ohio, to accept, in the circumstances before us, the disposition made by Wisconsin. The Ohio Supreme Court felt itself so bound. This Court does not decide that Ohio would be precluded from recognizing, as a matter of local law, the disposition made by the Wisconsin court. For Ohio to give respect to the Wisconsin decree would not offend the Due Process Clause. Ohio is no more precluded from doing so than a court of Ontario or Manitoba would be, were the mother to bring the children into one of these provinces.

Property, personal claims, and even the marriage status, see, e.g., Sherrer v. Sherrer, 334 U.S. 343, 68 S.Ct. 1087, 92 L.Ed. 1429, generally give rise to interests different from those relevant to the discharge of a State's...

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