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ArtIV.S1.3.1 Early Precedent on Full Faith and Credit Clause

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.

After the Full Faith and Credit Clause’s ratification, jurists debated whether states only needed to accept out-of-state judgments as evidence in judicial proceedings, or if they needed to give out-of-state judgments conclusive effect instead.1 The Supreme Court reached the latter conclusion in Mills v. Duryee, holding that states ordinarily cannot reexamine an out-of-state judgment’s merits.2 The Court reasoned that if “judgments of the state Courts” were “considered prima facie evidence only,” the Full Faith and Credit Clause “would be utterly unimportant and illusory,” as “[t]he common law would give such judgments precisely the same effect.” 3

The legal basis for the Mills Court’s ruling was not self-evident. As another chapter of this treatise explains, the First Congress passed a statute requiring “every court within the United States” to give “faith and credit” to properly authenticated judicial records and proceedings.4 It is unclear whether the Mills Court meant that the Constitution itself requires state courts to give conclusive effect to out-of-state judgments, or that the full faith and credit statute mandated that result instead.5 The answer to that question has significant practical consequences: If the Constitution itself requires states to give out-of-state judgments conclusive effect, then Congress may lack the power to modify that rule legislatively.6 Although Mills contains language supporting either interpretation,7 the Court apparently construed Mills as an interpretation of the full faith and credit statute from 1813 to 1887.8

The early Court nonetheless recognized limited circumstances in which states could disregard out-of-state judgments. In M’Elmoyle v. Cohen, the Court held that a state need not enforce another state’s judgment if the first state’s statute of limitations has expired.9 In D’Arcy v. Ketchum, the Court ruled that if a state court renders a judgment against a defendant whom the plaintiff did not properly serve with process, other states need not give that judgment full faith and credit.10 And in Thompson v. Whitman, the Court held that a state need not honor an out-of-state judgment from a court that lacked jurisdiction to issue it.11

See Stephen E. Sachs, Full Faith and Credit in the Early Congress, 95 Va. L. Rev. 1201, 1232 (2009). back
11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 481, 484 (1813) ( “Congress ha[s] therefore declared the effect of the record by declaring what faith and credit shall be given to it.” ); id. ( “[I]t is beyond all doubt that the judgment of the Supreme Court of New York was conclusive upon the parties in that state. It must, therefore, be conclusive here also.” ). See also Christmas v. Russell, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 290, 302–03 & n.14 (1866) (interpreting Mills as holding that a judicial record, “when duly authenticated, shall have in every other court of the United States the same faith and credit as it has in the State court from whence it was taken,” and that “it is not competent for any other State to authorize its courts to open the merits and review the cause” ). back
11 U.S. (7 Cranch) at 485. See also Hampton v. M’Connel, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 234, 235 (1818) (explaining that Mills held “that the judgment of a state court should have the same credit, validity and effect, in every other court of the United States, which it had in the state where it was pronounced” ). back
See Act of May 26, 1790, ch. 11, 1 Stat. 122. See also ArtIV.S1.5.1 Generally Applicable Federal Law on Full Faith and Credit Clause. back
See Jeffrey M. Schmitt, A Historical Reassessment of Full Faith and Credit, 20 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 485, 521 (2013) ( “While Mills holds that conclusive effect must be given to state judgments, it is unclear whether this holding was derived from the 1790 Act, the Constitution, or both.” ) (footnotes omitted). back
See David E. Engdahl, The Classic Rule of Faith and Credit, 118 Yale L.J. 1584, 1590 (2009) (arguing that the Supreme Court’s later decision to cast Mills's holding “as constitutional rather than statutory in origin entirely changed the perceived allocation of power between the legislative and judicial branches” ). See also ArtIV.S1.3.2 Modern Doctrine on Full Faith and Credit Clause and ArtIV.S1.5.2 Specifically Applicable Federal Law on Full Faith and Credit Clause. back
Compare 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) at 484 ( “The act declares that the record duly authenticated shall have such faith and credit as it has in the state Court from whence it is taken . . . Congress ha[s] therefore declared the effect of the record by declaring what faith and credit shall be given to it.” ) (first and second emphases added), and id. at 485 ( “[T]he [C]onstitution contemplated a power in [C]ongress to give a conclusive effect to such judgments. And we can perceive no rational interpretation of the [A]ct of [C]ongress, unless it declares a judgment conclusive when a Court of the particular state where it is rendered would pronounce the same decision.” ) (emphases added), with id. ( “Were the construction contended for by the Plaintiff in error to prevail, . . . this clause in the constitution would be utterly unimportant and illusory.” ) (emphasis added), and Schmitt, supra note 5, at 512 n.155 ( “[I]f Justice Story were referring only to the 1790 Act [in Mills], he would have said that such a construction would render the Act, rather than the Constitution, illusory.” ). back
See, e.g., D’Arcy v. Ketchum, 52 U.S. (11 How.) 165, 175–76 (1850) (suggesting that Mills involved the “construction of the act of 1790” ) (emphasis added); Christmas, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) at 302 (stating that Mills involved “the construction of th[e] act of Congress” ) (emphasis added); Thompson v. Whitman, 85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 457, 462 (1873) ( “The court in [Mills] held that the act gave to the judgments of each State the same conclusive effect, as records, in all the States, as they had at home . . .” ) (emphasis added). But see ArtIV.S1.3.2 Modern Doctrine on Full Faith and Credit Clause (explaining how the Court’s interpretation of Mills shifted in 1887). back
See 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 312, 328 (1839) ( “[T]he statute of limitations of Georgia can be pleaded to an action in that state, founded upon a judgment rendered in the state of South Carolina.” ). back
52 U.S. at 165–68, 172–76. See also Lafayette Ins. Co. v. French, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 404, 406 (1855) ( “[W]henever an action is brought in one State on a judgment recovered in another, it is not enough to show it to be valid in the State where it was rendered; it must also appear that the defendant was either personally within the jurisdiction of the State, or had legal notice of the suit . . .” ). back
85 U.S. (18 Wall.) at 469 (holding that “the jurisdiction of the court by which a judgment is rendered in any State may be questioned in a collateral proceeding in another State, notwithstanding the” Full Faith and Credit Clause). back