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ArtIV.S1.3.2 Modern Doctrine 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.

The Supreme Court reinterpreted the Full Faith and Credit Clause in Chicago & Alton Railroad v. Wiggins Ferry Co., in which the Court indicated that the Clause itself, not just the statute Congress passed to implement the Clause, compelled its holding in Mills requiring states to give out-of-state judgments conclusive effect.1 Cases following Chicago & Alton Railroad similarly characterized the Clause itself as imposing this requirement, often without mentioning the full faith and credit statute.2 The Court did not explain why it reconceptualized Mills's holding as a constitutional command rather than a legislative mandate.3

Thus, under the Court’s current interpretation of the Clause, courts ordinarily must give an out-of-state judgment the same effect it would have in the state that issued it.4 A court may not disregard an out-of-state judgment merely “because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or deems it to be wrong on the merits” ; the Clause “precludes any inquiry into the merits of the cause of action, the logic or consistency of the decision, or the validity of the legal principles on which the judgment is based.” 5 Nor may state courts decline to enforce other states’ judgments for public policy reasons.6

Still, the modern Court recognizes limited circumstances in which a state may refuse to enforce an out-of-state judgment.7 For example, a state need not honor a judgment if the rendering court lacked jurisdiction to enter it.8 A court’s power to scrutinize another court’s jurisdiction is limited, however.9 The court must ordinarily presume that the issuing court had jurisdiction unless the judicial record or other evidence reveals a jurisdictional defect.10 If the parties in the first action litigated whether the rendering court had jurisdiction, and the first court answered that question affirmatively, the second court must accept that conclusion.11

Because the Full Faith and Credit Clause ordinarily requires states to give out-of-state judgments the same effect as the states that issued them,12 whether a judgment has conclusive effect depends on whether the issuing court would regard the judgment as “final.” While some states hold that a judgment is final for full faith and credit purposes even when it is pending on appeal, other states hold that a judgment is not final until the appellate process has concluded.13

See 119 U.S. 615, 622 (1887) ( “Without doubt the constitutional requirement (article 4, § 1) that ‘full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state,’ implies that the public acts of every state shall be given the same effect by the courts of another state that they have by law and usage at home. This is clearly the logical result of the principles announced as early as 1813, in Mills v. Duryee, . . . and steadily adhered to ever since.” ) (emphasis added). back
See, e.g., Harris v. Balk, 198 U.S. 215, 221 (1905) ( “The state court of North Carolina has refused to give any effect in this action to the Maryland judgment; and the Federal question is whether it did not thereby refuse the full faith and credit to such judgment which is required by the Federal Constitution. If the Maryland court had jurisdiction to award it, the judgment is valid and entitled to the same full faith and credit in North Carolina that it has in Maryland as a valid domestic judgment.” ) (emphasis added); Clarke v. Clarke, 178 U.S. 186, 195 (1900) (discussing “the constitutional requirement that full faith and credit must be given in one state to the judgments and decrees of the courts of another state” ) (emphasis added). See also Ann Woolhandler & Michael G. Collins, Jurisdictional Discrimination and Full Faith and Credit, 63 Emory L.J. 1023, 1034 (2014) ( “It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the Court began to indicate that the Constitution on its own might require the enforcement of sister-state judgments.” ). back
See Woolhandler & Collins, supra note 2, at 1034 ( “The Court provided no explanation for its move . . .” ). See also Chi. & A. R., 119 U.S. at 622; Clarke, 178 U.S. at 195; Harris, 198 U.S. at 221. back
See, e.g., Thompson v. Thompson, 484 U.S. 174, 180 (1988) (holding that the Clause requires states “to accord the same force to judgments as would be accorded by the courts of the State in which the judgment was entered” ); V.L. v. E.L., 577 U.S. 404, 407 (2016) (per curiam) ( “With respect to judgments, ‘the full faith and credit obligation is exacting.’ . . . ‘A final judgment in one State, if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment, qualifies for recognition throughout the land.’” ) (quoting Baker v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 233 (1998)); Underwriters Nat’l Assurance Co. v. N.C. Life & Accident & Health Ins. Guar. Ass’n, 455 U.S. 691, 704 (1982) ( “[T]he 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.” ) (citation omitted). back
V.L., 577 U.S. at 407 (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 462 (1940)). back
See, e.g., Baker, 522 U.S. at 233 ( “[O]ur decisions support no roving ‘public policy exception’ to the full faith and credit due judgments.” ) (emphasis omitted); Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 546 (1948) (explaining that the Full Faith and Credit Clause “order[s] submission by one State even to hostile policies reflected in the judgment of another State” ). back
See, e.g., Nelson v. George, 399 U.S. 224, 229 (1970) ( “[T]he Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require that sister States enforce a foreign penal judgment . . .” ); Milwaukee Cnty. v. M.E. White Co., 296 U.S. 268, 276 (1935) (suggesting that courts need not honor a judgment “procured by fraud” ). back
See, e.g., V.L., 577 U.S. at 407 ( “A State is not required, however, to afford full faith and credit to a judgment rendered by a court that ‘did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the relevant parties.’” ) (quoting Underwriters Nat’l Assurance, 455 U.S. at 705); Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 805 (1985) ( “[A] judgment issued without proper personal jurisdiction over an absent party is not entitled to full faith and credit elsewhere . . .” ). back
See, e.g., V.L., 577 U.S. at 407 ( “That jurisdictional inquiry, however, is a limited one.” ). back
Id. ( “[I]f the judgment on its face appears to be a ‘record of a court of general jurisdiction, such jurisdiction over the cause and the parties is to be presumed unless disproved by extrinsic evidence, or by the record itself.’” ) (quoting Milliken, 311 U.S. at 462). back
See Underwriters Nat’l Assurance, 455 U.S. at 706 ( “[A] judgment is entitled to full faith and credit—even as to questions of jurisdiction—when the second court’s inquiry discloses that those questions have been fully and fairly litigated and finally decided in the court which rendered the original judgment.” ) (quoting Durfee v. Duke, 375 U.S. 106, 111 (1963)). back
See supra note 4 and accompanying text. back
Compare, e.g., Brinker v. Superior Ct., 1 Cal. Rptr. 2d 358, 360 (Cal. Ct. App. 1991) ( “Under New Jersey law, a judgment is ‘final’ for res judicata purposes, even though it is pending on appeal. Accordingly, the New Jersey judgment . . . was entitled to full faith and credit.” ) (internal citations omitted), with, e.g., Andre v. Morrow, 680 P.2d 1355, 1362 (Idaho 1984) ( “The second main element for recognition under principles of full faith and credit is a final judgment. Under the law of California, ‘a judgment does not become final so long as the action in which it is rendered is pending . . . and an action is deemed pending until it is finally determined on appeal or until the time for an appeal has passed.’” ) (ellipses in original) (quoting Pac. Gas & Elec. Co. v. Nakano, 87 P.2d 700, 702 (Cal. 1939)). back