Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689 (1992)

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ANKENBRANDT, as next friend and mother of L. R., et al. v. RICHARDS et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 91-367. Argued March 31, 1992—Decided June 15, 1992

Petitioner brought this suit on behalf of her daughters in the District Court, alleging federal jurisdiction based on the diversity-of-citizenship provision of 28 U. S. C. 1332, and seeking monetary damages for alleged torts committed against the girls by their father and his female companion, the respondents here. The court granted respondents' motion to dismiss without prejudice, ruling in the alternative that it lacked jurisdiction because the case fell within the "domestic relations" exception to diversity jurisdiction and that its decision to dismiss was justified under the abstention principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: 1. A domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction exists as a matter of statutory construction. Pp. 693-701. (a) The exception stems from Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, 584, in which the Court announced in dicta, without citation of authority or discussion of foundation, that federal courts have no jurisdiction over suits for divorce or the allowance of alimony. The lower federal courts have ever since recognized a limitation on their jurisdiction based on that statement, and this Court is unwilling to cast aside an understood rule that has existed for nearly a century and a half. Pp. 693-695. (b) An examination of Article III, 2, of the Constitution and of Barber and its progeny makes clear that the Constitution does not mandate the exclusion of domestic relations cases from federal-court jurisdiction. Rather, the origins of the exception lie in the statutory requirements for diversity jurisdiction. De la Rama v. De la Rama, 201 U. S. 303, 307. Pp. 695-697. (c) That the domestic relations exception exists is demonstrated by the inclusion of the defining phrase, "all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity," in the pre-1948 versions of the diversity statute, by Barber's implicit interpretation of that phrase to exclude divorce and alimony actions, and by Congress' silent acceptance of this construction for nearly a century. Considerations of stare decisis have particular strength in this context, where the legislative power is implicated, and Congress remains free to alter what this Court has done. Patterson v.


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