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VANDERBILT v. VANDERBILT ET AL.

decided: June 24, 1957.

VANDERBILT
v.
VANDERBILT ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK AND SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, COUNTY OF NEW YORK.

Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker; Warren took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Black

[ 354 U.S. Page 416]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., petitioner, and Patricia Vanderbilt, respondent, were married in 1948. They separated in 1952 while living in California. The wife moved to New York where she has resided since February 1953. In March of that year the husband filed suit for

[ 354 U.S. Page 417]

     divorce in Nevada. This proceeding culminated, in June 1953, with a decree of final divorce which provided that both husband and wife were "freed and released from the bonds of matrimony and all the duties and obligations thereof . . . ."*fn1 The wife was not served with process in Nevada and did not appear before the divorce court.

In April 1954, Mrs. Vanderbilt instituted an action in a New York court praying for separation from petitioner and for alimony. The New York court did not have personal jurisdiction over him, but in order to satisfy his obligations, if any, to Mrs. Vanderbilt, it sequestered his property within the State.*fn2 He appeared specially and, among other defenses to the action, contended that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution*fn3 compelled the New York court to treat the Nevada divorce as having ended the marriage and as having destroyed any duty of support which he owed the respondent. While the New York court found the Nevada decree valid and held that it had effectively dissolved the marriage, it nevertheless entered an order, under § 1170-b

[ 354 U.S. Page 418]

     of the New York Civil Practice Act,*fn4 directing petitioner to make designated support payments to respondent. 207 Misc. 294, 138 N. Y. S. 2d 222. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the support order. 1 N. Y. 2d 342, 135 N. E. 2d 553. Petitioner then applied to this Court for certiorari contending that § 1170-b, as applied, is unconstitutional because it contravenes the Full Faith and Credit Clause.*fn5 We granted certiorari, 352 U.S. 820.

In Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, this Court decided that a Nevada divorce court, which had no personal jurisdiction over the wife, had no power to terminate a husband's obligation to provide her support as required in a pre-existing New York separation decree. The factor which distinguishes the present case from Estin is that here the wife's right to support had not been reduced to judgment prior to the husband's ex parte divorce. In our opinion this difference is not material on the question before us. Since the wife was not subject to its jurisdiction, the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which she had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant.*fn6 Here, the Nevada divorce court

[ 354 U.S. Page 419]

     was as powerless to cut off the wife's support right as it would have been to order the husband to pay alimony if the wife had brought the divorce action and he had not been subject to the divorce court's jurisdiction. Therefore, the Nevada decree, to the extent it purported to affect the wife's right to support, was void and the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not obligate New York to give it recognition.*fn7

Petitioner claims that this case is governed by Thompson v. Thompson, 226 U.S. 551. For the reasons given in a concurring opinion in Armstrong v. Armstrong, 350 U.S. 568, 575, at 580-581, the Thompson case, insofar as it held that an ex parte divorce destroyed alimony rights, can no longer be considered controlling.

Affirmed.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Disposition

1 N. Y. 2d 342, 135 N. E. 2d 553, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

The question in this case is whether Nevada, which was empowered to grant petitioner a divorce without personal jurisdiction over respondent that must be respected, by command of the Constitution, by every other State, Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287,

[ 354 U.S. Page 420]

     was at the same time empowered by virtue of its domiciliary connection with petitioner to make, incidental to its dissolution of the marriage, an adjudication denying alimony to which sister States must also give full faith and credit. Whatever the answer to the question may be, Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, does not supply it. What the Court now states to be "not material" was crucial to the decision in that case, namely, the prior New York support order, which the Court held Nevada was required to respect by virtue of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, § 1, of the Constitution. That this fact was crucial to the Court's decision in that case is made clear by the Court's reference to the prior New York judgment in its two statements of the question presented and more than a half dozen times throughout the course of its opinion. The Court rightly regarded the fact as crucial because of the requirement of Art. IV, § 1, that Nevada give full faith and credit to the prior New York "judicial Proceedings."

The Court now chooses to regard the existence of a prior New York support order as "not material," holding for the first time that "the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which [respondent] had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant [citing for this proposition, Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 726-727]. " We have thus reached another stage -- one cannot say it is the last -- in the Court's tortuous course of constitutional adjudication relating to dissolution of the marriage status. Whereas previously only the State of "matrimonial domicile" could ...


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