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ArtIV.S1.4.1 Early Doctrine on State Law on Full Faith and Credit

Article IV, Section 1:

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

While the Supreme Court considered the Full Faith and Credit Clause’s applicability to public acts several times during the early Twentieth Century,1 its opinion in Bradford Electric Light Co. v. Clapper proved especially significant.2 In Clapper, a Vermont resident who worked for a Vermont company died while working in New Hampshire.3 His widow sued his employer in a New Hampshire court under New Hampshire’s employers’ liability statute.4 The employer argued that the Full Faith and Credit Clause required the New Hampshire court to apply Vermont’s worker’s compensation law.5 The Supreme Court explained that the Clause leaves “room for some play of conflicting policies,” and “does not require the enforcement of every right conferred by a statute of another state.” 6 The Court thus indicated that courts should balance each state’s interests when determining which of two competing state statutes to apply.7 Because Vermont had stronger interests in the dispute than New Hampshire, the Court ruled that Vermont law applied.8

The Supreme Court refined Clapper's balancing approach in Alaska Packers Ass’n v. Industrial Accident Commission of California.9 In that case, a California company executed an employment contract in California with a nonresident alien from Mexico.10 The contract provided that the company would transport the worker to Alaska to perform seasonal work, and then return him to California to be paid.11 The parties agreed in their contract to be bound by Alaska’s worker’s compensation law in the event the worker was injured.12 After the worker was injured in Alaska, California’s Industrial Accident Commission awarded him compensation under California’s worker’s compensation statute.13 The employer argued that, by applying California law, the Commission had denied Alaska law full faith and credit.14 Noting that requiring courts to apply other states’ statutes whenever they conflict with the home state’s laws would produce the “absurd result” that no state could apply its own laws in its own courts, the Alaska Packers Court rejected the employer’s argument.15 Although the Court reaffirmed Clapper's holding that courts should balance states’ competing interests when deciding which of two states’ laws to apply, it added a new presumption in favor of states applying their own laws.16 Reasoning that California had a strong interest in providing a remedy for injured workers within its borders,17 the Court let California apply its own laws to the dispute.18

That same year, the Court considered whether the Clause required states to entertain causes of action based on other states’ laws. In Broderick v. Rosner, New York’s Superintendent of Banks sued various stockholders in New Jersey under New York’s shareholder liability statute.19 The New Jersey courts ruled that the Superintendent could not maintain a lawsuit in New Jersey based on another state’s shareholder liability laws.20 The Supreme Court held that the Full Faith and Credit Clause required the New Jersey courts to entertain the suit.21 The Court reasoned that permitting states to deny jurisdiction to hear cases based on other states’ laws would allow states to “escape [their] constitutional obligations” to give other states’ public acts full faith and credit.22

The Court again considered the Clause’s application to out-of-state statutes in John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Yates.23 In Yates, a man bought a life insurance contract in New York, where he resided with his wife.24 After he died, his widow moved to Georgia and sued to enforce the insurance policy in a Georgia court.25 The Georgia courts refused to apply a New York law that gave the insurance company a meritorious defense to the widow’s claim.26 The Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia courts needed to give the New York law full faith and credit.27 Notably, the Court did not mention or apply Alaska Packers’ holding that courts must balance states’ competing interests when deciding whether to apply another state’s statute.28 Instead, the Court reasoned that the case presented “no occurrence, nothing done, to which the law of Georgia could apply” because “[t]he contract of insurance was made, and the death of the insured occurred in,” New York.29

See, e.g., Supreme Council of the Royal Arcanum v. Green, 237 U.S. 531, 544 (1915) (concluding that a New York court violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause by failing to give Massachusetts law “controlling effect” ); N.Y. Life Ins. Co. v. Head, 234 U.S. 149, 161 (1914) (asserting that a “foundation[al]” principle of the Full Faith and Credit Clause is that one state may not enact statutes that “operate beyond the jurisdiction of that State” to “destroy freedom of contract” in another state); Converse v. Hamilton, 224 U.S. 243, 261 (1912) (holding that “the laws of Minnesota . . . were not accorded that faith and credit to which they were entitled under the Constitution and laws of the United States” ); Olmsted v. Olmsted, 216 U.S. 386, 395 (1910) (concluding that the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not “requir[e] the courts of the state of New York to give force and effect to the statute of the state of Michigan, so as to control the devolution of title to lands in New York” ). back
See 286 U.S. 145 (1932), overruled in part by Crider v. Zurich Ins. Co., 380 U.S. 39 (1965). back
Id. at 151. back
Id. at 150. back
See id. at 151, 159. back
See id. at 160. back
See id. at 159–62. See also Franchise Tax Bd. v. Hyatt, 538 U.S. 488, 495 (2003) (explaining that Clapper held that courts should “appraise[] and balance[] state interests when invoking the Full Faith and Credit Clause to resolve conflicts between overlapping laws of coordinate States” ). back
See 286 U.S. at 161–63 ( “[T]he mere fact that the Vermont legislation does not conform to that of New Hampshire does not establish that it would be obnoxious to the latter’s public policy to give effect to the Vermont statute in cases involving only the rights of residents of that state incident to the relation of employer and employee created there. . . . The interest of New Hampshire was only casual. Leon Clapper was not a resident there. He was not continuously employed there. So far as it appears, he had no dependent there. It is difficult to see how the state’s interest would be subserved, under such circumstances, by burdening its courts with this litigation. . . . [T]he rights as between the company and Leon Clapper or his representative are to be determined according to the Vermont act.” ). back
294 U.S. 532 (1935). back
Id. at 538, 542. back
Id. at 538. back
Id. back
See id. at 537–39. back
Id. at 539. Alaska was a territory rather than a state at this time, but the court assumed—and the parties conceded—that the federal full faith and credit statute made full faith and credit principles equally applicable to territorial laws. See id. at 546. See also infra ArtIV.S1.5.1 Generally Applicable Federal Law on Full Faith and Credit (discussing this statute). back
See 294 U.S. at 547 ( “A rigid and literal enforcement of the full faith and credit clause, without regard to the statute of the forum, would lead to the absurd result that, wherever the conflict arises, the statute of each state must be enforced in the courts of the other, but cannot be in its own. Unless by force of that clause a greater effect is thus to be given to a state statute abroad than the clause permits it to have at home, it is unavoidable that this Court determine for itself the extent to which the statute of one state may qualify or deny rights asserted under the statute of another.” ). back
See id. at 547–48 ( “[T]he conflict is to be resolved, not by giving automatic effect to the full faith and credit clause, compelling the courts of each state to subordinate its own statutes to those of the other, but by appraising the governmental interests of each jurisdiction, and turning the scale of decision according to their weight. . . . Prima facie every state is entitled to enforce in its own courts its own statutes, lawfully enacted. One who challenges that right, because of the force given to a conflicting statute of another state by the full faith and credit clause, assumes the burden of showing, upon some rational basis, that of the conflicting interests involved those of the foreign state are superior to those of the forum.” ). See also J. Stephen Clark, Conflicts Originalism: The “Original Content” of the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the Compulsory Choice of Marriage Law, 118 W. Va. L. Rev. 547, 553 (2015) (opining that Alaska Packers “weakened [Clapper's] balancing approach by adding a strong presumption that a forum state’s choice to disregard sibling law and apply its own law is constitutional” ); Crider v. Zurich Ins. Co., 380 U.S. 39, 40 (1965) (describing Alaska Packers as “mark[ing] a break with the Clapper philosophy” ). back
See 294 U.S. at 542–43 ( “The probability is slight that injured workmen, once returned to California, would be able to retrace their steps to Alaska, and there successfully prosecute their claims for compensation. Without a remedy in California, they would be remediless, and there was a danger that they might become public charges, both matters of grave public concern to the state. California, therefore, had a legitimate public interest in . . . providing a remedy available to [the injured worker] in California.” ). back
See id. at 549–50 ( “[California’s] interest is sufficient to justify its legislation and is greater than that of Alaska, of which the employee was never a resident and to which he may never return. Nor should the fact that the employment was wholly to be performed in Alaska, although temporary in character, lead to any different result.” ). back
294 U.S. 629, 637–38 (1935). back
See id. at 638–39. back
Id. at 647. back
See id. at 642–43 ( “The power of a state to determine the limits of the jurisdiction of its courts and the character of controversies which shall be heard therein is subject to the limitations imposed by the Federal Constitution. . . . A ‘State cannot escape its constitutional obligations (under the full faith and credit clause) by the simple device of denying jurisdiction in such cases to Courts otherwise competent.’” ) (quoting Kenney v. Supreme Lodge of the World, 252 U.S. 411, 415 (1920)); id. at 643 (holding that a state “may not . . . deny the 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” ). back
299 U.S. 178 (1936). back
Id. at 179. back
Id. back
See id. at 179–82. back
Id. at 183. back
See id. at 179–83. back
See id. at 182. See also Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hague, 449 U.S. 302, 310–11 (1981) (plurality opinion) (interpreting Yates to “stand for the proposition that if a State has only an insignificant contact with the parties and the occurrence or transaction, application of its law is unconstitutional,” and that “a postoccurrence change of residence to the forum State—standing alone—was insufficient to justify application of forum law” ). back