Article 4, Section 1
Hitchcock v. Aicken1 Caines 460 N.Y. 1803
Thompson J. The question now submitted to the court is, whether it was competent for the defendant, on the trial to go into evidence as to the merits of the judgment obtained in Vermont; or, in other words, whether this judgment is to be considered as a foreign judgment, and only prima facie evidence of the debt?
This case was submitted without argument, and the only point, I conceive, presented for consideration is, whether it was competent for the defendant, on the trial, to open the judgment, and go into an inquiry into the original merits of the action tried in the state of Vermont. I shall assume, in the examination of this question, as points conceded, and which I think, the case will fully authorize me to take for granted, that there was a fair and impartial trial had between these parties in the state of Vermont, and that by the laws and usage of that state, the judgment would be conclusive between the parties there. If such was not the case, it was incumbent on the defendant either to disclose it by pleading, or set it up as a defence, under a general plea. Nothing is here set forth in any way impeaching the justice of this judgment, nor any allegation that it was irregularly or unduly obtained. If I am correct, then, as to the true question presented by the case, and the object of the defendant was to go into an examination of the cause on his part, as if it had never been before tried, I should say it was not competent for him to go into such an examination, but that the judgment was conclusive between the parties. As a general rule on this subject, I should consider judgments in neighboring states prima facie evidence of the demand, but liable to be opened and examined in the same manner only as they would be in the state where they were rendered. This I think a plain and simple rule, calculated to promote the ends of justice, and the one necessarily resulting from the political connection between the states; imposed by the constitution and law of the united government relating to this subject. To say that every action of slander, assault and battery, &c. or for a fraud, as was the case before us, and which had been fairly tried, and fully examined in a neighboring state, and judgment rendered, should be again opened, as if no trial had been had, would be manifestly unjust, and tending to oppression. To say that the judgment shall be conclusive between the parties would, in many instances, be giving it a more binding force than it has in the state where rendered; and to put it on the footing of foreign judgments altogether, would be considering that part of the constitution relative to the records and judicial proceedings of other states as a dead letter: and, besides, to say this judgment is to be considered in the light of a foreign judgment only, might perhaps, leave the question doubtful and unsettled how far it was examinable. In the case of Walker v. Witter, Doug. Rep. 4, it is decided that a foreign judgment is prima facie evidence of the debt, by which I understand the court to mean, that it is not incumbent upon the plaintiff, in the first instance, to prove the ground, nature and extent of the demand on which the judgment had been obtained. Thus far, I think, judgments obtained in sister states ought to be considered analogous to foreign judgments; and in the case of Sinclair v. Fraser, Doug. 5, in note, decided in the House of Lords, on an appeal from the court of sessions in Scotland, the same principle was adopted as to a foreign judgment being prima facie evidence of the debt; but the court there said, that it was competent to the defendant to impeach the justice of it, or to show it to have been irregularly or unduly obtained. These would appear to be terms sufficiently broad to authorize the opening the judgment in every possible case; for it would be impossible to decide whether injustice had been done by the original judgment, without examining the whole merits of the action. Independent, however, of this consideration, I cannot view the judgment obtained in the state of Vermont in the light of a foreign judgment only, without disregarding the constitution of the United States, and the act of congress, as having no relation to the subject. The 4th article of the constitution declares, "That 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." This article, I think, manifestly presents two subjects for legislative provision; 1st. To prescribe the manner of proving such acts, records and proceedings; and 2dly. Their effect. In pursuance of this power we find congress, by an act passed 26th May, 1790, (Laws U. S. vol. 1, 159,) after prescribing the mode of proof, declaring, "That the said records and judicial proceedings, authenticated as aforesaid, shall have such faith and credit given to them, in every court within the United States, as they have by law or usage in the courts of the state from whence the said records, are or shall be taken. The framers of this constitution, doubtless, well understood the light in which foreign judgments were viewed in courts of justice, and must have intended, by this article, to place the states upon a different footing with respect to each other than that on which they stood in relation to foreign nations; had not this been their intention, they would have been silent on the subject. I am aware that the old confederation contained a similar article, (4th article,) declaring that "Full faith and credit shall be given in each of these states to the records, acts and judicial proceedings of the courts and magistrates of every other state." The construction to be given to this article, came, in some measure, under consideration in several of the state courts prior to the adoption of the constitution, but in no case, as far as my researches have extended, under circumstances analogous to the present; and, so far as the cases that I [Volume 4, Page 474] have examined look to the present question, I think we shall find principles recognized which are in perfect unison with those I have adopted. In the case of James v. Allen, 1 Dall. 188, decided in Pennsylvania, in the court of common pleas, in Philadelphia county, in the year 1786, the question directly before the court was, whether the defendant's discharge from imprisonment, by virtue of an insolvent act of the state of New Jersey, would entitle him to a like discharge in Pennsylvania, and the court determined not. But the decision was founded on the nature and terms of the New Jersey insolvent act, saying it was a private act, local in its nature and local in its terms, and went no farther than to discharge him from imprisonment in the jail of Essex county, in the state of New Jersey. And the case of Phelps v. Holker, 1 Dall. 261, decided in the supreme court of Pennsylvania, in the year 1788, was an action of debt, brought on a judgment obtained in Massachusetts, under their foreign attachment act, and the court decided that it was not conclusive, on the ground that it was a proceeding in rem, and ought not to be extended farther than the property attached, the act declaring that the judgment and execution in a foreign attachment shall only go against the goods attached. The case of Kibbe v. Kibbe, Kirby's Rep. 119, decided in the superior court of the state of Connecticut, in the year 1786, was an action of debt upon a judgment obtained in Massachusetts, and the court refused to sustain the action, on the ground that the defendant had not been personally served with process to appear in the original cause. The court saying, full credence ought to be given to the judgments of the courts in any of the United States, where both parties are within the jurisdiction of such courts at the time of commencing the suit, and are duly served with the process, and have, or might have had, a fair trial of the cause. Thus, we see, in these cases that the court examined into the law of the state where the proceedings were had, in order to determine their operation and effect. But, as far as any decision in the circuit court of the United States ought to have weight in giving a construction to the constitution and act of congress, we have the question settled in the case of Armstrong v. Carsons, 2 Dall. 302, decided in Pennsylvania, in the year 1794. The question before the court was, whether nil debet was a good plea to an action of debt on a judgment obtained in the superior court of New Jersey; and Wilson, Justice, said if the plea would be bad in the courts of New Jersey, it is bad here; for whatever doubts there might be on the words of the constitution, the act of congress effectually removes them, declaring, in direct terms, that the record shall have the same effect in this court as in the court from which it was taken. The rule intended by the court to be prescribed here, clearly was the one which would have been adopted by the court in the state where the judgment was rendered. Although the act of congress does not adopt the term effect, as stated by the judge, yet, if it means any thing, it means to declare the effect. It says, "The said records and judicial proceedings, authenticated as aforesaid, shall have such faith and credit given to them, in every court within the United States, as they have, by law or usage, in the courts of the state from whence the said records are, or shall be taken." If the constitution, instead of saying the records &c. shall have full faith and credit given them, had adopted the precise language of this act, it appears to me there would have been but little doubt but that it would have been considered equivalent to declaring such records to have the like effect in every court within the United States as in the courts of the state where rendered. It being a subject within the power of congress to declare the effect, I do not see why the act ought not to receive the same construction. If nothing more was intended than to declare the manner of authenticating such records and proceedings, this part of the act is useless; nay, worse it is mischievous, being calculated to mislead. I am the more inclined to think congress intended to declare the effect, because the rule there adopted appears to me to be the only one that could, with propriety, be prescribed, as there was no general and uniform practice in the different states on this subject. If a judgment in the state of Connecticut would not be conclusive there, but only prima facie evidence, it would be unreasonable to consider it conclusive here; and if conclusive there between the parties, I can see no substantial reason against considering it so here. When the matter has been once litigated, and the merits fairly tried, it appears to me to be contrary to sound principles, and tending to promote litigation, and against the very genius and spirit of the article of the constitution above referred to, again to open the judgment. I think the rule laid down by the court, in the case of Kibbe v. Kibbe, above cited, is founded in justice and good sense, that the judgments of courts, in sister states, ought to receive full credence where both parties were within the jurisdiction of the court at the time of commencing the suit, and were duly served with process, and had, or might have had, a fair trial of the cause. This I take to have been the situation of the case now before us; and, on this ground, I am of opinion, it was not competent for the defendant to go into evidence as to the merits of the original judgment.
I am sensible, that the case of Armstrong v. Carsons, 2 Dall. 302, stands in opposition to this doctrine. That was an action of debt in the circuit court of the United States, for the district of Pennsylvania, brought on a judgment obtained in New Jersey, in which the counsel for the defendant yielded the position that the judgment was conclusive; and the court, without a previous discussion, adopted the idea, on the supposition that the act of congress had declared the effect to be conclusive. The presiding judge, in delivering the opinion of the court, states the act as having expressly declared the effect. In terms, he was evidently inaccurate, and whatever respect may be due to the decisions of that court, its opinion, in this instance, does not appear to me to be correct, nor to have been founded on a deliberate examination of the subject.
Upon the construction of this article of the constitution, and the act of congress, I am, therefore, of opinion, that the judgments of other states are to be considered in the light of foreign judgments, and, when made the foundation of a suit in our own courts, are not conclusive, but from courtesy, are to be admitted as presumptive evidence only of a title to recover, according to our own laws. To allow them a greater effect might be attended with much inconvenience, and produce an irregular interference of [Volume 4, Page 475] jurisdiction between different states, and, in some cases, enable them to prescribe the law to each other. The consequences cannot easily be foreseen, and might often lead to injustice and individual oppression.
I am of opinion that the verdict be set aside, and a new trial be awarded.
. . . . .
Kent, J. The important question arising in this case is, what is to be the effect in this court, of the judgment in Vermont, according to the constitution and laws of the United States?
The constitution declares that a full faith and credit shall be given in each state, to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state, and that congress may, by general laws, prescribe the manner in which such act, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.
This injunction, that they were to receive full faith and credit in every state, made a part also of the articles of confederation; but, under those articles, it seems to have been understood that the question of the effect of such records and judicial proceedings was still left open. In the case of James v. Allen, 1 Dall. 188, in the court of common pleas at Philadelphia, in the year 1786, a question arose on the effect of a discharge under the insolvent law of New Jersey and the construction of this article in the confederation was brought into discussion, and it was contended that a judgment, or other judicial proceedings of another state, was, by this article, rendered unexaminable, and conclusive evidence.
But the court said, that the article would not admit of that construction, and that is was chiefly intended to oblige each state to receive the records of another, as full evidence of such acts and judicial proceedings.
Again, in the case of Phelps v. Holker, 1 Dall. 261, in the supreme court of Pennsylvania, in April term, 1788, an action of debt was brought upon a judgment in Massachusetts; which judgment was obtained against the defendant by default, and founded on an attachment of a blanket, which was shown to the sheriff as the reputed property of the defendant, and the question was, whether the judgment was conclusive evidence of the debt. It was contended, on one side, that the judgment was, by the articles of confederation, rendered conclusive, and that it made no difference in the case that the judgment was obtained by the process of a foreign attachment. The other side insisted that the articles of confederation provide only that, in matters of evidence, mutual faith and credit should be given, and especially, that they ought not to be conclusive when founded on foreign attachment. The court decided, that the defendant was still at liberty to controvert and deny the debt, and that the articles of confederation must not be construed to work such evident injustice as was contained in the doctrine urged by the plaintiff. Another case I shall mention was that of Kibbe v. Kibbe, Kirby, 119, decided in the superior court of Connecticut, in the year 1786. It was an action of debt on a judgment obtained in Massachusetts by default, and founded on the attachment of a handkerchief, and so, like the preceding case, a proceeding in rem. The question came before the court on demurrer, and judgment was given for the defendant, on the ground that the court in Massachusetts had no jurisdiction of the cause; but the court admitted that full credence ought to be given to judgments in other states, where both parties were within the jurisdiction of the court, and the defendant duly served with process, and had, or might have had, a fair trial of the cause.
It appears from these decisions, that judgments in other states were not regarded under the confederation as of binding and conclusive effect; and the defendant was admitted to deny the regularity and equity of the proceedings by which the judgment was obtained. This was placing the judgments of the other states on the basis of foreign judgments, which are received only as prima facie evidence of the debt; and it lies with the defendant to impeach the justice thereof, or to show them to have been irregularly or unduly granted. Sinclair v. Fraser, cited in Doug. 5, note, and in Appendix, p. 6, 7, in the case of Galbraith and Neville.
Such being the received construction of the injunction, that full faith and credit was to be given to the judicial proceedings of other states, it remains to see whether the case is altered under the existing constitution of the United States. That constitution, by authorizing congress to prescribe not only the manner in which the acts, records and proceedings of other states shall be proved, but their effect evidently distinguished between giving full faith and credit, and the giving effect to the records of another state, and until congress shall have declared by law what that effect shall be, the records of different states are left precisely in the situation they were in under the articles of confederation.
The act of congress of 26th May, 1790, is entitled "An act to prescribe the mode in which the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings in each state shall be authenticated, so as to take effect in every other state." After prescribing the mode of authentication, it declares that the records and judicial proceedings so authenticated, shall have such faith and credit given to them in every court within the United States, as they have by law or usage in the courts of the state from whence they are taken. This act leaves the question as to the effect of such records precisely where it found it. The articles of confederation, in the first instance and the constitution, in the second, had already declared that such records and proceedings were to receive full faith and credit; and this act, without prescribing the effect, defines, or, rather, qualifies, the faith and credit they are to receive. Instead of full faith and credit, they are to receive such faith and credit. We are bound to give the judgment faith and credit, and this faith and credit was considered by the state courts, while sitting under the government of the articles of confederation, as requiring full assent to the proceedings contained in the record, as matters of evidence and fact, but not as absolutely barring the door against any examination of the regularity of the proceedings, and the justice of the judgment.
I ought here to notice the case of Armstrong v. Executors of Carson, 2 Dall. 302, as leaning against the conclusions I have drawn. It was an action of debt brought in the circuit [Volume 4, Page 476] court of the United States for Pennsylvania district, on a judgment obtained in the state of New Jersey.
The question was, whether the plea of nil debet was good, and the court was of opinion, the plea being bad in New Jersey, was bad there also; for whatever doubts there might be on the words of the constitution, the act of congress effectually removed them, by declaring, in direct terms, that the record should have the same effect in that court as in the court from which it was taken. But the reason given for this opinion, if the report of the case be correct, is clearly founded in mistake.
The act of congress does not declare the record shall have the same effect, but only the same faith and credit, and there is a manifest and essential difference between the one mode of expression and the other. If, therefore, as the court intimated, there were doubts on the words of the constitution, those doubts, so far from being removed, are rather increased by the law. The language of the constitution is, at least, as cogent and comprehensive, if not more so, than the language of the law.
It is pretty evident that the constitution meant nothing more by full faith and credit, than what respected the evidence of such proceedings; for the words are applied to public acts, as well as to judicial matters; nor ought the act of congress to be carried further than the words will warrant. When we reflect in what manner judgments may, in some instances, be obtained, as in the cases cited, by the attachment of a handkerchief or blanket, it is more favorable to the harmony of the union, and to public justice, that the judgments of the several states should be put on the footing of foreign judgments, than that they should be held absolutely binding and conclusive, or as much so as they may be by the laws of the state which authorized the proceeding; and if we may question the binding force of the proceeding or judgment in one case, we may in another; for, the acts of congress has no exceptions, and must receive a uniform construction. If a debtor be discharged from imprisonment, or from his debts, by the insolvent act of some other state; or if their courts be authorized to grant a stay of suits for a time, are we bound by these acts; for they all are, or may be, judicial proceedings. There are no considerations of national policy that could induce us to suppose the act of congress went the whole length of closing the investigation of the judgment. It would be going further than ever was done in any civilized country, even with respect to its own dominions. Between England and Scotland, England and Wales, (Walker v. Witter, Doug. 1; Sinclair v. Fraser, cited in the notes, and Galbraith v. Neville, 29 Geo. III. cited in the Appendix, p. 5,) or England and its colonial establishments the union is as intimate and as interesting as between the several states; and yet the judgments in Scotland, (Kaims' Equity, vol. 2, 365, 377,) or Wales, or Jamaica, for instance, are held to be foreign judgments. So the court of sessions, in Scotland, consider judgments rendered in England as foreign judgments; that they have no intrinsic authority extra territorium; and that in actions upon them, they are to be presumed just till the contrary be proved; and if they are shown to be unjust, or irregular, the suit upon them will not be sustained.
The judgments of other states have been treated in this court in the light of foreign judgments, by admitting the plea of nil debet to be the proper plea, instead of the plea of nul tiel record. The court had intimated doubts on the question in prior cases; (Le Conte v. Pendleton, April term 1799, and Cobbets ads. Rush, January term, 1801;) but in the case of Post and another v. Nerby, in January term last, they decided that nul tiel record was a bad plea; and it follows, pretty conclusively, that if a judgment of another state is not to be treated in the pleadings as a record, it cannot have the same obligatory force. So in the case of Phelps v. Bryant, Administrator, decided at the last term, we refused to sustain an action on a decree of the superior court of Connecticut, founded on the service of a summons within this state. An act of the legislature had rendered all judgments and decrees, founded on such service, void, as far as respected our own government. But if the decree in that case was of conclusive effect under the constitution and laws of the union, the plea to the merits of that decree, as resulting from the irregular commencement of the suit, would have been bad notwithstanding our statute.
The result of my opinion is, that the judgment in question is to be considered in the light of a foreign judgment, and only prima facie evidence of the demand.
Receptum est optima ratione in executione sententiae alibi latae, servari jus loci in quo fit executio, non ubi res judicata est. 2 Huber. 540.
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 4, Section 1, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press