Williams v. State of North Carolina

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation317 U.S. 287,87 L.Ed. 279,63 S.Ct. 207,143 A.L.R. 1273
Docket NumberNo. 29,29
Decision Date21 December 1942

Mr. W. H. Strickland, of Lenoir, N.C., for petitioners.

Mr. Hughes J. Rhodes, of Burlington, N.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners were tried and convicted of bigamous cohabitation under § 4342 of the North Carolina Code,1 1939, and each was sentenced for a term of years to a state prison. The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of North Carolina. 220 N.C. 445, 17 S.E.2d 769. The case is here on certiorari. 315 U.S. 795, 62 S.Ct. 918, 86 L.Ed. 1196.

Petitioner Williams was married to Carrie Wyke in 1916 in North Carolina and lived with her there until May, 1940. Petitioner Hendrix was married to Thomas Hendrix in 1920 in North Carolina and lived with him there until May, 1940. At that time petitioners went to Las Vegas, Nevada and on June 26, 1940, each filed a divorce action in the Nevada court. The defendants in those divorce actions entered no appearance nor were they served with process in Nevada. In the case of defendant Thomas Hendrix service by publication was had by publication of the summons in a Law Vegas newspaper and by mailing a copy of the summons and complaint to his last post office address.2 In the case of defendant Carrie Wil-

liams a North Carolina sheriff delivered to her in North Carolina a copy of the summons and complaint. A decree of divorce was granted petitioner Williams by the Nevada court on August 26, 1940, on the grounds of extreme cruelty, the court finding that 'the plaintiff has been and now is a bona fide and continuous resident of the County of Clark, State of Nevada, and had been such resident for more than six weeks immediately preceding the commencement of this action in the manner prescribed by law'.3 The Nevada court granted petitioner Hendrix a divorce on October 4, 1940, on the grounds of wilful neglect and extreme cruelty and made the same finding as to this petitioner's bona fide residence in Nevada as it made in the case of Williams. Petitioners were married to each other in Nevada on October 4, 1940. Thereafter they returned to North Carolina where they lived together until the indictment was returned. Petitioners pleaded not guilty and offered in evidence exemplified copies of the Nevada proceedings, contending that the divorce drcrees and the Nevada marriage were valid in North Carolina as well as in Nevada. The State contended that since neither of the defendants in the Nevada actions was served in Nevada nor entered an appearance there, the Nevada decrees would not be recognized as valid in North Carolina. On this issue the court charged the jury in substance that

a Nevada divorce decree based on substituted service where the defendant made no appearance would not be recognized in North Carolina under the rule of Pridgen v. Pridgen, 203 N.C. 533, 166 S.E. 591. The State further contended that petitioners went to Nevada not to establish a bona fide residence but solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the laws of that State to obtain a divorce through fraud upon that court. On that issue the court charged the jury that under the rule of State v. Herron, 175 N.C. 754, 94 S.E. 698, the defendants had the burden of satisfying the jury, but not beyond a reasonable doubt, of the bona fides of their residence in Nevada for the required time. Petitioners excepted to these charges. The Supreme Court of North Carolina in affirming the judgment held that North Carolina was not required to recognize the Nevada decrees under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution (Art. IV, § 1) by reason of Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562, 26 S.Ct. 525, 50 L.Ed. 867, 5 Ann.Cas. 1. The intimation in the majority opinion (220 N.C. pages 460—464, 17 S.E.2d 769) that the Nevada divorces were collusive suggests that the second theory on which the state tried the case may have been an alternative ground for the decision below, adequate to sustain the judgment under the rule of Bell v. Bell, 181 U.S. 175, 21 S.Ct. 551, 45 L.Ed. 804a case in which this Court held that a decree of divorce was not entitled to full faith and credit when it had been granted on constructive service by the courts of a state in which neither spouse was domiciled. But there are two reasons why we do not reach that issue in this case. In the first place, North Carolina does not seek to sustain the judgment below on that ground. Moreover it admits that there probably is enough evidence in the record to require that petitioners be considered 'to have been actually domiciled in Nevada.' In the second place, the verdict against petitioners was a general one. Hence even though the doctrine of Bell v. Bell, supra, were to be deemed applicable here, we cannot determine on this rec-

ord that petitioners were not convicted on the other theory on which the case was tried and submitted, viz. the invalidity of the Nevada decrees because of Nevada's lack of jurisdiction over the defendants in the divorce suits. That is to say, the verdict of the jury for all we know may have been rendered on that ground alone, since it did not specify the basis on which it rested. It therefore follows here as in Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 368, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 75 L.Ed. 1117, 73 A.L.R. 1484, that if one of the grounds for conviction is invalid under the Federal Constitution, the judgment cannot be sustained. No reason has been suggested why the rule of the Stromberg case is inapplicable here. Nor has any reason been advanced why the rule of the Stromberg case is not both appropriate and necessary for the protection of rights of the accused. To say that a general verdict of guilty should be upheld though we cannot know that it did not rest on the invalid constitutional ground on which the case was submitted to the jury, would be to countenance a procedure which would cause a serious impairment of constitutional rights. Accordingly, we cannot avoid meeting the Haddock v. Haddock issue in this case by saying that the petitioners acquired no bona fide domicil in Nevada. , if the case had been tried and submitted on that issue only, we would have quite a different problem, as Bell v. Bell indicates. We have no occasion to meet that issue now and we intimate no opinion on it. However it might be resolved in another proceeding, we cannot evade the constitutional issue in this case on the easy assumption that petitioners' domicil in Nevada was a sham and a fraud. Rather we must treat the present case for the purpose of the limited issue before us precisely the same as if petitioners had resided in Nevada for a term of years and had long ago acquired a permanent abode there. In other words, we would reach the question whether North Carolina could refuse to recognize the Nevada decrees because in its view and contrary to

the findings of the Nevada court petitioners had no actual, bona fide domicil in Nevada, if and only if we concluded that Haddock v. Haddock was correctly decided. But we do not think it was.

The Haddock case involved a suit for separation and alimony brought in New York by the wife on personal service of the husband. The husband pleaded in defense a divorce drcree obtained by him in Connecticut where he had established a separate domicil. This Court held that New York, the matrimonial domicil where the wife still resided, need not give full faith and credit to the Connecticut decree, since it was obtained by the husband who wrongfully left his wife in the matrimonial domicil, service on her having been obtained by publication and she not having entered an appearance in the action. But we do not agree with the theory of the Haddock case that, so far as the marital status of the parties is concerned,4 a decree of divorce granted under such circumstances by one state need not be given full faith and credit in another.

Article IV, § 1 of the Constitution not only directs that 'Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and Judicial Proceedings of every other State' but also provides that 'Congress may be general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.' Congress has exercised that power. By the Act of May 26, 1790, c. 11, 28 U.S.C. § 687, 28 U.S.C.A. § 687, Congress has provided that judgments '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.' Chief Justice Marshall stated in Hampton v. M'Connel, 3 Wheat. 234, 235, 4 L.Ed. 378, that 'the judgment of a state court should have the same credit,

validity, and effect, in every other court in the United States, which it had in the state where it was pronounced, and that whatever pleas would be good to a suit thereon in such state, and none others, could be pleaded in any other court in the United States.' That view has survived substantially intact. Fauntleroy v. Lum, 210 U.S. 230, 28 S.Ct. 641, 52 L.Ed. 1039. This Court only recently stated that Art. IV, § 1 and the Act of May 26, 1790 require that 'not some but full' faith and credit be given judgments of a state court. Davis v. Davis, 305 U.S. 32, 40, 59 S.Ct. 3, 6, 83 L.Ed. 26, 118 A.L.R. 1518. Thus even though the cause of action could not be entertained in the state of the forum either because it had been barred by the local statute of limitations or contravened local policy, the judgment thereon obtained in a sister state is entitled to full faith and credit. See Christmas v. Russell, 5 Wall. 290, 18 L.Ed. 475; Fauntleroy v. Lum, supra; Kenney v. Supreme Lodge, 252 U.S. 411, 40 S.Ct. 371, 64 L.Ed. 638, 10 A.L.R. 716; Titus v. Wallick, 306 U.S. 282, 291, 59 S.Ct. 557, 562, 83 L.Ed. 653. Some exceptions have been...

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