Full Faith and Credit Clause
The Full Faith and Credit Clause—Article IV, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution—provides that the various states must recognize legislative acts, public records, and judicial decisions of the other states within the United States. It states that “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” The statute that implements the clause, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1738, further specifies that “a state’s preclusion rules should control matters originally litigated in that state.” The Full Faith and Credit Clause ensures that judicial decisions rendered by the courts in one state are recognized and honored in every other state. It also prevents parties from moving to another state to escape enforcement of a judgment or to relitigate a controversy already decided elsewhere, a practice known as forum shopping.
In drafting the Full Faith and Credit Clause, the Framers of the Constitution were motivated by a desire to unify their new country while preserving the autonomy of the states. To that end, they sought to guarantee that judgments rendered by the courts of one state would not be ignored by the courts of other states. The Supreme Court reiterated the Framers’ intent when it held that the Full Faith and Credit Clause precluded any further litigation of a question previously decided by an Illinois court in Milwaukee County v. M. E. White Co., 296 U.S. 268, 56 S. Ct. 229, 80 L. Ed. 220 (1935). The Court held that by including the clause in the Constitution, the Framers intended to make the states “integral parts of a single nation throughout which a remedy upon a just obligation might be demanded as of right, irrespective of the state of its origin.”
The Full Faith and Credit Clause is invoked primarily to enforce judgments. When a valid judgment is rendered by a court that has jurisdiction over the parties, and the parties receive proper notice of the action and a reasonable opportunity to be heard, the Full Faith and Credit Clause requires that the judgment receive the same effect in other states as in the state where it is entered. A party who obtains a judgment in one state may petition the court in another state to enforce the judgment. When this is done, the parties do not relitigate the issues, and the court in the second state is obliged to fully recognize and honor the judgment of the first court in determining the enforceability of the judgment and the procedure for its execution.
The Full Faith and Credit Clause has also been invoked to recognize the validity of a marriage. Traditionally, every state honored a marriage legally contracted in any other state. However, in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court held that Hawaii’s statute restricting legal marriage to parties of the opposite sex establishes a sex-based classification, which is subject to Strict Scrutiny if challenged on Equal Protection grounds (Baehr v. Lewin, 852 P.2d 44, 74 Haw. 530). Although the court did not recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, it raised the possibility that a successful equal protection challenge to the state’s marriage laws could eventually lead to state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. In response to the Baehr case, Congress in 1996 passed the Defense of Marriage Act (110 Stat. § 2419), which defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman for federal purposes and expressly grants states the right to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Full Faith and Credit Clause was applied to new matters. Child Custody determinations had historically fallen under the jurisdiction of state courts, and before the 1970s, other states did not accord them full faith and credit enforcement. As a result, a divorced parent who was unhappy with one state’s custody decision could sometimes obtain a more favorable ruling from another state. This was an incentive for a dissatisfied parent to kidnap a child and move to another state in order to petition for custody. In response to this situation, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) was adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1968. By 1984, every state had adopted a version of the UCCJA. In 1980, Congress passed the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (28 U.S.C.A. § 1738A), which aids enforcement and promotes finality in child custody decisions by providing that valid custody decrees are entitled to full faith and credit enforcement in other states. The Violence against Women Act of 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322 [codified in scattered sections of 8 U.S.C.A., 18 U.S.C.A., 42 U.S.C.A.]) extends full faith and credit to the enforcement of protective orders, which previously were not enforced except in the state where they were rendered. This gave a new measure of protection to victims who moved to a different state after obtaining a protective order in one state.