Williams I and Williams II.

In Williams I and Williams II, the husband of one marriage and the wife of another left North Carolina, obtained six-week divorce decrees in Nevada, married there, and resumed their residence in North Carolina where both previously had been married and domiciled. Prosecuted for bigamy, the defendants relied upon their Nevada decrees and won the preliminary round of this litigation, that is, in Williams I,53 when a majority of the Justices, overruling Haddock v. Haddock, declaring that in this case, the Court must assume that the petitioners for divorce had a bona fide domicile in Nevada and not that their Nevada domicile was a sham. “[E]ach State, by virtue of its command over the domiciliaries and its large interest in the institution of marriage, can alter within its own borders the marriage status of the spouse domiciled there, even though the other spouse is absent. There is no constitutional barrier if the form and nature of substituted service meet the requirements of due process.” Accordingly, a decree granted by Nevada to one, who, it is assumed, is at the time bona fide domiciled therein, is binding upon the courts of other states, including North Carolina in which the marriage was performed and where the other party to the marriage is still domiciled when the divorce was decreed. In view of its assumptions, which it justified on the basis of an inadequate record, the Court did not here pass upon the question whether North Carolina had the power to refuse full faith and credit to a Nevada decree because it was based on residence rather than domicile or because, contrary to the findings of the Nevada court, North Carolina found that no bona fide domicile had been acquired in Nevada.54

Presaging what ruling the Court would make when it did get around to passing upon the latter question, Justice Jackson, dissenting in Williams I, protested that “this decision repeals the divorce laws of all the states and substitutes the law of Nevada as to all marriages one of the parties to which can afford a short trip there. . . . While a state can no doubt set up its own standards of domicile as to its internal concerns, I do not think it can require us to accept and in the name of the Constitution impose them on other states. . . . The effect of the Court’s decision today—that we must give extraterritorial effect to any judgment that a state honors for its own purposes—is to deprive this Court of control over the operation of the full faith and credit and the due process clauses of the Federal Constitution in cases of contested jurisdiction and to vest it in the first state to pass on the facts necessary to jurisdiction.”55

Notwithstanding that one of the deserted spouses had died since the initial trial and that another had remarried, North Carolina, without calling into question the status of the latter marriage, began a new prosecution for bigamy; when the defendants appealed the conviction resulting therefrom, the Supreme Court, in Williams II,56 sustained the adjudication of guilt as not denying full faith and credit to the Nevada divorce decree. Reiterating the doctrine that jurisdiction to grant divorce is founded on domicile,57 the Court held that a decree of divorce rendered in one state may be collaterally impeached in another by proof that the court that rendered the decree lacked jurisdiction (the parties not having been domiciled therein), even though the record of proceedings in that court purports to show jurisdiction.58


317 U.S. 287, 298–99 (1942). [Back to text]
317 U.S. at 302. [Back to text]
317 U.S. at 312, 321, 315. [Back to text]
325 U.S. 226, 229 (1945). [Back to text]
Bell v. Bell, 181 U.S. 175 (1901); Andrews v. Andrews, 188 U.S. 14 (1903). [Back to text]
Strong dissents were filed, which have influenced subsequent holdings. Among these was that of Justice Rutledge, which attacked both the consequences of the decision as well as the concept of jurisdictional domicile on which it was founded: “Unless ‘matrimonial domicil,’ banished in Williams I [by the overruling of Haddock v. Haddock], has returned renamed [‘domicil of origin’] in Williams II, every decree becomes vulnerable in every state. Every divorce, wherever granted . . . may now be reexamined by every other state, upon the same or different evidence, to redetermine the ‘jurisdiction fact,’ always the ultimate conclusion of ‘domicil.’ . . . ” 325 U.S. at 248. “The Constitution does not mention domicil. Nowhere does it posit the powers of the states or the nation upon that amorphous, highly variable common law conception. . . . No legal conception, save possibly ‘jurisdiction’ . . . affords such possibilities for uncertain application. . . . Apart from the necessity for travel, [to effect a change of domicile, the latter] criterion comes down to a purely subjective mental state, related to remaining for a length of time never yet defined with clarity. . . . When what must be proved is a variable, the proof and the conclusion which follows upon it inevitably take on that character. . . . [The majority has] not held that denial of credit will be allowed, only if the evidence [as to the place of domicile] is different or depending in any way upon the character or the weight of the difference. The test is not different evidence. It is evidence, whether the same or different and, if different, without regard to the quality of the difference, from which an opposing set of inferences can be drawn by the trier of fact ‘not unreasonably.’ . . . But [the Court] does not define ‘not unreasonably.’ It vaguely suggests a supervisory function, to be exercised when the denial [of credit] strikes its sensibilities as wrong, by some not stated standard. . . . There will be no ‘weighing’ [of evidence]. There will be only examination for sufficiency, with the limits marked by ‘scintillas’ and the like.” 325 U.S. at 255, 258, 259, 251. No less disposed to prophesy undesirable results from this decision was Justice Black whose dissenting opinion Justice Douglas joined: “[T]oday, as to divorce decrees, [the Full Faith and Credit Clause] . . . has become a nationally disruptive force. . . . [T]he Court has in effect [held] . . . that ‘the full faith and credit clause does not apply to actions for divorce, and that the states alone have the right to determine what effect shall be given to the decrees of other states in this class of cases.’ . . . If the Court is today abandoning that principle . . . that a marriage validly consummated under one state’s laws is valid in every other state [, then a] . . . consequence is to subject people to criminal prosecutions for adultery and bigamy merely because they exercise their constitutional right to pass from a state in which they were validly married on to another state which refuses to recognize their marriage. Such a consequence runs counter to the basic guarantees of our federal union.” 325 U.S. at 264, 265. [Back to text]