Sutton v. Leib

Citation72 S.Ct. 398,342 U.S. 402,96 L.Ed. 448
Decision Date03 March 1952
Docket NumberNo. 143,143
PartiesSUTTON v. LEIB
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. John Alan Appleman, Urbana, Ill., Edward D. Bolton, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Arthur M. Fitzgerald, Springfield, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

By reason of a divorce in an Illinois state court, with a judgment for monthly installments of alimony until remarriage, petitioner asserts that her divorced husband, the respondent Leib, is liable for unpaid installments of alimony. Asserting diversity jurisdiction, petitioner, a divorcee, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. Claim for recovery is made, notwithstanding a later marriage by petitioner to another in Nevada, subsequently annulled in New York, for the period from the Nevada remarriage to her third presumably valid marriage in New York to a third man. To respondent's plea that the Illinois alimony obligation was finally ended by the Nevada remarriage of petitioner, Mrs. Sutton relied upon the New York annulment decree as determining that her Nevada marriage was void. She contends that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Federal Constitution requires that Illinois hold her Nevada marriage void ab initio by virtue of the New York annulment;1 that as the annulment decree obliterates the existence of her Nevada marriage respondent is liable for unpaid alimony until her New York marriage to Sutton.

The trial court rendered summary judgment for respondent and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. 188 F.2d 766. The affirmance was bottomed on the conclusion that, as the Nevada marriage of petitioner was valid in Nevada, it terminated the liability for alimony under the Illinois judgment of divorce. The court thus gave full faith and credit to the Nevada marriage rather than the New York annulment.2 Because disposition of this case required treatment of an important question of federal law, review was granted on a writ of certiorari. 342 U.S. 846, 72 S.Ct. 73.

Facts. Petitioner, Verna Sutton, divorced respondent, Leib, in Illinois in 1939, and under the terms of the decree of divorce was awarded $125 'on or before the first day of each calendar month * * * for so long as the plaintiff shall remain unmarried, or for so long as this decree remains in full force and effect.' On July 3, 1944, in Reno, Nevada, petitioner married Walter Henzel who had that day obtained a Nevada divorce from Dorothy Henzel, a resident of New York who had not been served in Nevada and who made no appearance there. One month later, August 3, 1944, Dorothy Henzel brought a separate maintenance proceeding in the courts of New York. Walter Henzel defended this suit. The proceeding resulted in a decree in Dorothy Henzel's favor, declaring Walter Henzel's Nevada divorce from her 'null and void.' With the service of Dorothy's process on Walter, petitioner ceased living with him, and in January 1945 filed suit in New York for annulment of her marriage to him. In this proceeding Walter Henzel also appeared. On June 6, 1947, the New York court entered an interlocutory decree after trial which became final three months thereafter. This judgment declared that petitioner's marriage to Henzel was 'null and void' for the reason that he 'had another wife living at the time of said marriage.'

There was no appeal in Nevada from the Nevada divorce of the Henzels. No further action was taken in Nevada concerning the marriage of Henzel and petitioner, and no appeal taken in New York from the judgment holding the Henzels' Nevada divorce null and void or from the judgment annulling the Nevada marriage of Henzel and petitioner. The jurisdiction of the New York courts to enter the judgments is unquestioned.

Analysis of Issues. Collection of alimony is sought against respondent who was not a party to any of the judicial proceedings in Nevada or New York and appears in none of the records from either state. Illinois law as to respondent's liability governs the federal court's decision of this case.3 But the responsibility for the decision of federal constitutional issues involved rests finally on this Court.4 This controversy presents, fundamentally, a problem of Illinois law, to wit, the Illinois rule as to the effect of a subsequently annulled second marriage on the alimony provisions of an Illinois divorce awarding support until remarriage.

As the Full Faith and Credit Clause requires Illinois to recognize the validity of records and judicial proceedings of sister states, the conclusion will not vary because the post-divorce recorded events underlying this litigation took place in other states than Illinois. This is not an alleged conflict of decisions between states such as existed in certain tax and estate cases.5 Rather the situation more nearly approaches Barber v. Barber, 323 U.S. 77, 65 S.Ct. 137, 89 L.Ed. 82. There Tennessee refused full faith and credit to a North Carolina judgment for arrears of alimony on the ground of its lack of finality in North Carolina. We reversed Tennessee's decision, nor on the ground of error in Tennessee rules of law but on our determination that the North Carolina judgment was final and therefore enforceable as a matter of federal law in Tennessee under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. So in this case, Illinois' conclusion as to this claim for alimony must be reached under Illinois law on the basis of giving the various proceedings the effect to which the Constitution entitles them. In this way the Full Faith and Credit Clause performs its intended function of avoiding relitigation in other states of adjudicated issues, while leaving to the law of the forum state the application of the predetermined facts to the new problem. Riley v. New York Trust Co., 315 U.S. 343, 348—349, 62 S.Ct. 611—612, 82 L.Ed. 885.

Legal Effect of Nevada and New York Events. Petitioner and Henzel were married in Nevada. Thereafter petitioner brought her putative husband before the New York court. Petitioner and Henzel subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of the New York court and its decree annulling their Nevada marriage was entered with jurisdiction, so far as this record shows, of the parties and the subject matter. The burden is upon one attacking the validity of a judgment to demonstrate its invalidity.6 That judgment is res judicata between the parties and is unassailable collaterally.7 As both parties were before the New York court, its decree of annulment of their Nevada marriage ceremony is effective to determine that the marriage relationship of petitioner and Henzel did not exist at the time of filing the present complaint in Illinois for unpaid alimony. The effect in Illinois of the New York declaration of nullity on the obligation for alimony is a matter of Illinois law hereinafter treated. The New York annulment determines the marriage relationship that is the marital status of petitioner and Henzel, just as any divorce judgment determines such relationship. If the Nevada court had had jurisdiction by personal service in the state or appearance in the case of Henzel and the first Mrs. Henzel, its decree of divorce would have been unassailable in other states.8 So as to the New York decree annulling the marriage, New York had such jurisdiction of the parties and its decree is entitled to full faith throughout the Nation, in Nevada as well as in Illinois.9

The New York invalidation of the Nevada divorce of the Henzels stands in the same position. As Mrs. Henzel was neither personally served in Nevada nor entered her appearance, the Nevada divorce decree was subject to attack and nullification in New York for lack of jurisdiction over the parties in a contested action.10

This leads us to hold that the conclusion of the Court of Appeals quoted in note 2, supra, is incorrect under the facts of this case. The marriage ceremony performed for petitioner and Henzel in Nevada must be held invalid because then Henzel had a living wife. The New York annulment held the Nevada marriage void. Nevada declares bigamous marriages void.11

Conclusion. The determination that the New York adjudications must be given full faith and credit in Illinois, however, does not decide this controversy. Although the federal courts must give the same force and effect to the New York decrees as Illinois does,12 a question of state law remains. Does Illinois give the marriage ceremony of an annulled marriage sufficient vitality to release Leib, the respondent, from his obligation to pay alimony subsequently due?

Full faith to the New York annulment, which is conclusive everywhere as to the marriage status of petitioner and Henzel, compels Illinois to reat their Nevada marriage ceremony as void.13 The force of that rule, however, does not require that the effect of the New York annulment on rights incident to this declaration of the invalidity of the Nevada marriage ceremony shall be the same in all states. Annulment is, in respect to its effect, analogous to divorce. A valid divorce, one spouse appearing only by constructive service, that frees the parties from the bonds of matrimony throughout the United States does not require a second state to accord its terms the same result in litigation over separable legal rights as the decree would have in the courts of the state entering the decree.14 Without reference to the effect of a divorce on incidents of the marriage relation where both spouses are actually before the court, we think it equally clear, as a matter of constitutional law, that Illinois is free to decide for itself the effect of New York's declaration of annulment on the obligations of respondent, a stranger to that decree.

Although the present proceeding necessarily presents questions of state law, resting as it does upon diversity jurisdiction, the case does not present any...

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