Judgments: Effect to Be Given in Forum State


In General

Article IV, § 1, has had its principal operation in relation to judgments. Embraced within the relevant discussions are two principal classes of judgments. First, those in which the judgment involved was offered as a basis of proceedings for its own enforcement outside the State where rendered, as for example, when an action for debt is brought in the courts of State B on a judgment for money damages rendered in State A; second, those in which the judgment involved was offered, in conformance with the principle of res judicata, in defense in a new or collateral proceeding growing out of the same facts as the original suit, as for example, when a decree of divorce granted in State A is offered as barring a suit for divorce by the other party to the marriage in the courts of State B.

The English courts and the different state courts in the United States, while recognizing “foreign judgments in personam” which were reducible to money terms as affording a basis for actions in debt, originally accorded them generally only the status of prima facie evidence in support thereof, so that the merits of the original controversy could always be opened. When offered in defense, on the other hand, “foreign judgments in personam” were regarded as conclusive upon everybody on the theory that, as stated by Chief Justice Marshall, “it is a proceeding in rem, to which all the world are parties.”3 The pioneer case was Mills v. Duryee,4 decided in 1813. In an action brought in the circuit court of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a state court for this purpose, on a judgment from a New York court, the defendant endeavored to reopen the whole question of the merits of the original case by a plea of “nil debet.” It was answered in the words of the first implementing statute of 17905 that such records and proceedings were entitled in each State to the same faith and credit as in the State of origin, and that inasmuch as they were records of a court in the State of origin, and so conclusive of the merits of the case there, they were equally so in the forum State. The Court adopted the latter view, saying that it had not been the intention of the Constitution merely to reenact the common law—that is, the principles of private international law—with regard to the reception of foreign judgments, but to amplify and fortify these.6 And in Hampton v. McConnell,7 some years later, Chief Justice Marshall went even further, using language which seems to show that he regarded the judgment of a state court as constitutionally entitled to be accorded in the courts of sister States not simply the faith and credit on conclusive evidence but the validity of final judgment.

3 Mankin v. Chandler, 16 F. Cas. 625, 626 (No. 9030) (C.C.D. Va. 1823).

4 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 481 (1813). See also Everett v. Everett, 215 U.S. 203 (1909); Insurance Company v. Harris, 97 U.S. 331 (1878).

5 1 Stat. 122.

6 On the same basis, a judgment cannot be impeached either in, or out of, the State by showing that it was based on a mistake of law. American Express Co. v. Mullins, 212 U.S. 311, 312 (1909). Fauntleroy v. Lum, 210 U.S. 230 (1908); Hartford Life Ins. Co. v. Ibs, 237 U.S. 662 (1915); Hartford Life Ins. Co. v. Barber, 245 U.S. 146 (1917).

7 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 234 (1818).

When, however, the next important case arose, the Court had come under new influences. This was McElmoyle v. Cohen,8 in which the issue was whether a statute of limitations of the State of Georgia, which applied only to judgments obtained in courts other than those of Georgia, could constitutionally bar an action in Georgia on a judgment rendered by a court of record of South Carolina. Declining to follow Marshall’s lead in Hampton v. McConnell, the Court held that the Constitution was not intended “materially to interfere with the essential attributes of the lex fori,” that the act of Congress only established a rule of evidence, of conclusive evidence to be sure, but still of evidence only; and that it was necessary, in order to carry into effect in a State the judgment of a court of a sister State, to institute a fresh action in the court of the former, in strict compliance with its laws; and that, consequently, when remedies were sought in support of the rights accruing in another jurisdiction, they were governed by the lex fori. In accord with this holding, it has been further held that foreign judgments enjoy, not the right of priority or privilege or lien which they have in the State where they are pronounced but only that which the lex fori gives them by its own laws, in their character of foreign judgments.9 A judgment of a state court, in a cause within its jurisdiction, and against a defendant lawfully summoned, or against lawfully attached property of an absent defendant, is entitled to as much force and effect against the person summoned or the property attached, when the question is presented for decision in a court in another State, as it has in the State in which it was rendered.10

8 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 312 (1839). See also Townsend v. Jemison, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 407, 413-420 (1850); Bank of Alabama v. Dalton, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 522, 528 (1850); Bacon v. Howard, 61 U.S. (20 How.) 22, 25 (1858); Christmas v. Russell, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 290, 301 (1866); Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co., 127 U.S. 265, 292 (1888); Great Western Tel. Co. v. Purdy, 162 U.S. 329 (1896); Wells v. Simonds Abrasive Co., 345 U.S. 514, 516-518 (1953). Recently, the Court reconsidered and adhered to the rule of these cases, although the Justices divided with respect to rationales. Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717 (1988). Acknowledging that in some areas it had treated statutes of limitations as substantive rules, such as in diversity cases to insure uniformity with state law in federal courts, the Court ruled that such rules are procedural for full-faith-and-credit purposes, since “[t]he purpose . . . of the Full Faith and Credit Clause . . . is . . . to delimit spheres of state legislative competence.” id. at 727.

9 Cole v. Cunningham, 133 U.S. 107, 112 (1890). See also Stacy v. Thrasher, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 44, 61 (1848); Milwaukee County v. White Co., 296 U.S. 268 (1935).

10 Chicago & Alton R.R. v. Wiggins Ferry Co., 119 U.S. 615, 622 (1887); Hanley v. Donoghue, 116 U.S. 1, 3 (1885). See also Green v. Van Buskirk, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 139, 140 (1869); Bigelow v. Old Dominion Copper Co., 225 U.S. 111 (1912); Roche v. McDonald, 275 U.S. 449 (1928); Ohio v. Chattanooga Boiler Co., 289 U.S. 439 (1933).

A judgment enforceable in the State where rendered must be given effect in another State, notwithstanding that the modes of procedure to enforce its collection may not be the same in both States.11 If the initial court acquired jurisdiction, its judgment is entitled to full faith and credit elsewhere even though the former, by reason of the departure of the defendant with all his property, after having been served, has lost its capacity to enforce it by execution in the State of origin.12 “A cause of action on a judgment is different from that upon which the judgment was entered. In a suit upon a money judgment for a civil cause of action, the validity of the claim upon which it was founded is not open to inquiry, whatever its genesis. Regardless of the nature of the right which gave rise to it, the judgment is an obligation to pay money in the nature of a debt upon a specialty. Recovery upon it can be resisted only on the grounds that the court which rendered it was without jurisdiction, . . . or that it has ceased to be obligatory because of payment or other discharge . . . or that it is a cause of action for which the State of the forum has not provided a court.”13

11 Sistare v. Sistare, 218 U.S. 1 (1910).

12 Michigan Trust Co. v. Ferry, 228 U.S. 346 (1913). See also Fall v. Eastin, 215 U.S. 1 (1909).

13 Milwaukee County v. White Co., 296 U.S. 268, 275-276 (1935).

On the other hand, the clause is not violated when a judgment is disregarded because it is not conclusive of the issues before a court of the forum. Conversely, no greater effect can be given than is given in the State where rendered. Thus, an interlocutory judgment may not be given the effect of a final judgment.14 Likewise, when a federal court does not attempt to foreclose the state court from hearing all matters of personal defense which landowners might plead, a state court may refuse to accept the former’s judgment as determinative of the landowners’ liabilities.15 Similarly, though a confession of judgment upon a note, with a warrant of attorney annexed, in favor of the holder, is in conformity with a state law and usage as declared by the highest court of the State in which the judgment is rendered, the judgement may be collaterally impeached upon the ground that the party in whose behalf it was rendered was not in fact the holder.16 But a consent decree, which under the law of the State has the same force and effect as a decree in invitum, must be given the same effect in the courts of another State.17

Subsequent to its departure from Hampton v. McConnell,18 the Court does not appear to have formulated, by way of substitution, any clear-cut principles for disposing of the contention that a State need not provide a forum for a particular type of judgment of a sister State. Thus, in one case it held that a New York statute forbidding foreign corporations doing a domestic business to sue on causes originating outside the State was constitutionally applicable to prevent such a corporation from suing on a judgment obtained in a sister State.19 But in a later case it ruled that a Mississippi statute forbidding contracts in cotton futures could not validly close the courts of the State to an action on a judgment obtained in a sister State on such a contract, although the contract in question had been entered into in the forum State and between its citizens.20 Following the later rather than the earlier precedent, subsequent cases21 have held: (1) that a State may adopt such system of courts and form of remedy as it sees fit but cannot, under the guise of merely affecting the remedy, deny enforcement of claims otherwise within the protection of the Full Faith and Credit Clause when its courts have general jurisdiction of the subject matter and the parties;22 (2) that, accordingly, a forum State, which has a shorter period of limitations than the State in which a judgment was granted and later revived, erred in concluding that, whatever the effect of the revivor under the law of the State of origin, it could refuse enforcement of the revived judgment;23 (3) that the courts of one State have no jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of judgments at law obtained in another State, when the same reasons assigned for granting the restraining order were passed upon on a motion for new trial in the action at law and the motion denied;24 (4) that the constitutional mandate requires credit to be given to a money judgment rendered in a civil cause of action in another State, even though the forum State would have been under no duty to entertain the suit on which the judgment was founded, inasmuch as a State cannot, by the adoption of a particular rule of liability or of procedure, exclude from its courts a suit on a judgment;25 and (5) that, similarly, tort claimants in State A, who obtain a judgment against a foreign insurance company, notwithstanding that, prior to judgment, domiciliary State B appointed a liquidator for the company, vested company assets in him, and ordered suits against the company stayed, are entitled to have such judgment recognized in State B for purposes of determining the amount of the claim, although not for determination of what priority, if any, their claim should have.26

14 Board of Public Works v. Columbia College, 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 521 (1873); Robertson v. Pickrell, 109 U.S. 608, 610 (1883).

15 Kersh Lake Dist. v. Johnson, 309 U.S. 485 (1940). See also Texas & Pac. Ry. v. Southern Pacific Co., 137 U.S. 48 (1890).

16 National Exchange Bank v. Wiley, 195 U.S. 257, 265 (1904). See also Grover & Baker Machine Co. v. Radcliffe, 137 U.S. 287 (1890).

17 Harding v. Harding, 198 U.S. 317 (1905).

18 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 234 (1818).

19 Anglo-American Provision Co. v. Davis Provision Co., 191 U.S. 373 (1903).

20 Fauntleroy v. Lum, 210 U.S. 230 (1908). Justice Holmes, who spoke for the Court in both cases, asserted in his opinion in the latter that the New York statute was “directed to jurisdiction,” the Mississippi statute to “merits,” but four Justices could not grasp the distinction.

21 Kenney v. Supreme Lodge, 252 U.S. 411 (1920), and cases there cited. Holmes again spoke for the Court. See also Cook, The Powers of Congress under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, 28 YALE L.J. 421, 434 (1919).

22 Broderick v. Rosner, 294 U.S. 629 (1935), approved in Hughes v. Fetter, 341 U.S. 609 (1951).

23 Union Nat'l Bank v. Lamb, 337 U.S. 38 (1949); see also Roche v. McDonald, 275 U.S. 449 (1928).

24 Embry v. Palmer, 107 U.S. 3, 13 (1883).

25 Titus v. Wallick, 306 U.S. 282, 291-292 (1939).

26 Morris v. Jones, 329 U.S. 545 (1947). Moreover, there is no apparent reason why Congress, acting on the implications of Marshall’s words in Hampton v. McConnell, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 234 (1818), should not clothe extrastate judgments of any particular type with the full status of domestic judgments of the same type in the several States. Thus, why should not a judgment for alimony be made directly enforceable in sister States instead of merely furnishing the basis of an action in debt?

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Last modified: June 9, 2014