What is the Full Faith and Credit Clause?

The Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution states 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.

(Article IV, Section 1)

The Full Faith and Credit Clause most often appears in cases related to choice of law disputes, in which a court in one jurisdiction may be allowed or even required to apply the law of another jurisdiction.  Today, the Full Faith and Credit Clause is also invoked in enforcing the judgment of one court by a court in a different jurisdiction.

History

The Full Faith and Credit Clause is based on laws of “comity,” which basically encourage countries to respect the judgments and verdicts passed by courts in other countries, rather than requiring the parties to re-litigate the same issue in a separate country.  Comity rules may also be known as “conflict of laws” rules or “private international law” rules, depending on the country.

Comity rules help prevent people from skipping out on their obligation to pay damages or honor an injunction simply by moving to another country.  For instance, without any comity rules, a defendant held liable for negligence in Canada could avoid paying the injured plaintiff a dime simply by moving to Mexico.  Under rules of comity, however, a Mexican court would uphold the Canadian judgment and require the defendant to pay the plaintiff.  Merely moving countries would not dissolve the defendant’s obligation to the plaintiff.

The Full Faith and Credit Clause in the United States

The Full Faith and Credit Clause works much the same way as international comity rules, only it applies to judgments between U.S. states as well as to judgments made in foreign countries.  Under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, state and federal courts are required to respect judgments made by courts in other states as well as judgments made in foreign countries.

The Full Faith and Credit Clause also affects how courts apply the laws of other states when deciding cases based in diversity jurisdiction or with parties, events, or property in more than one state.  As a rule, state courts may apply their own procedural rules, or “lex fori” (“the law of the forum”), but they must apply the substantive rules of the place where the event or transaction that caused the dispute took place – the “lex loci” (“the law of the place”).  However, choice of law issues can quickly become complicated, and this rule does not always apply, depending on the facts of a particular case.

In recent years, the Full Faith and Credit Clause has been used to uphold several federal statutes related to family law issues.  For instance, the Clause was invoked to uphold the requirement in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that requires courts to respect restraining orders against violent partners or spouses that are issued in other states.  The Clause was also used recently to uphold the federal Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act, which requires state courts to enforce child support orders made in other states.  The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act contains similar rules.

Exceptions

The most well-known exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause appears in family law, where at least one federal statute has held that the Full Faith and Credit Clause need not apply.  The Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) states that a court in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage does not have to recognize a same-sex marriage made in a state that does recognize these marriages.  This is an exception to the traditional marriage-law rule of “lex loci celebrationis,” which held that any court should recognize a marriage under the laws of the state where it was made.

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