The Full Faith and Credit clause requires states to recognize judicial proceedings from other states, including procedural issues and judgments. However, the application of the clause can differ based on the nature of the proceeding and the applying state's laws.
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.
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
Article IV, § 1, has had its principal operation in relation to judgments. Embraced within the relevant discussions are two principal classes of judgments. First, those in which the judgment involved was offered as a basis of proceedings for its own enforcement outside the state where rendered, as for example, when an action for debt is brought in the courts of State B on a judgment for money damages rendered in State A; second, those in which the judgment involved was offered, in conformance with the principle of res judicata, in defense in a new or collateral proceeding growing out of the same facts as the original suit, as for example, when a decree of divorce granted in State A is offered as barring a suit for divorce by the other party to the marriage in the courts of State B.
The English courts and the different state courts in the United States, while recognizing "foreign judgments in personam," which were reducible to money terms as affording a basis for actions in debt, originally accorded them generally only the status of prima facie evidence in support thereof, so that the merits of the original controversy could always be opened. When offered in defense, on the other hand, "foreign judgments in personam" were regarded as conclusive upon everybody on the theory that, as stated by Chief Justice Marshall, "it is a proceeding in rem, to which all the world are parties."1 The pioneer case was Mills v. Duryee,2 decided in 1813. In an action brought in the circuit court of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a state court for this purpose, on a judgment from a New York court, the defendant endeavored to reopen the whole question of the merits of the original case by a plea of "nil debet." It was answered in the words of the first implementing statute of 17903 that such records and proceedings were entitled in each state to the same faith and credit as in the state of origin, and that, as they were records of a court in the state of origin, and so conclusive of the merits of the case there, they were equally so in the forum state. The Court found that it had not been the intention of the Constitution merely to reenact the common law—that is, the principles of private international law—with regard to the reception of foreign judgments, but to amplify and fortify these.4 Some years later, in Hampton v. McConnell,5 Chief Justice Marshall went even further, using language that seems to show that he regarded the judgment of a state court as constitutionally entitled to be accorded in the courts of sister states not simply the faith and credit on conclusive evidence but the validity of final judgment.
When, however, the next important case arose, the Court had come under new influences. This case was McElmoyle v. Cohen,6 in which the issue was whether a statute of limitations of the State of Georgia, which applied only to judgments obtained in courts other than those of Georgia, could constitutionally bar an action in Georgia on a judgment rendered by a court of record of South Carolina. Declining to follow Marshall's lead in Hampton v. McConnell, the Court held that the Constitution was not intended "materially to interfere with the essential attributes of the lex fori," that the act of Congress only established a rule of evidence—of conclusive evidence to be sure, but still of evidence only; and that it was necessary, in order to carry into effect in a state the judgment of a court of a sister state, to institute a fresh action in the court of the former, in strict compliance with its laws; and that, consequently, when remedies were sought in support of the rights accruing in another jurisdiction, they were governed by the lex fori. In accord with this holding, the Court further held that foreign judgments enjoy, not the right of priority or privilege or lien that they have in the state where they are pronounced but only what the lex fori gives them by its own laws, in their character of foreign judgments.7 A judgment of a state court, in a cause within its jurisdiction, and against a defendant lawfully summoned, or against lawfully attached property of an absent defendant, is entitled to as much force and effect against the person summoned or the property attached, when the question is presented for decision in a court in another state, as it has in the state in which it was rendered.8
A judgment enforceable in the state where rendered must be given effect in another state, notwithstanding that the modes of procedure to enforce its collection may not be the same in both states.9 If the initial court acquired jurisdiction, its judgment is entitled to full faith and credit elsewhere even though the former, by reason of the departure of the defendant with all his property, after having been served, has lost its capacity to enforce it by execution in the state of origin.10 "A cause of action on a judgment is different from that upon which the judgment was entered. In a suit upon a money judgment for a civil cause of action, the validity of the claim upon which it was founded is not open to inquiry, whatever its genesis. Regardless of the nature of the right which gave rise to it, the judgment is an obligation to pay money in the nature of a debt upon a specialty. Recovery upon it can be resisted only on the grounds that the court which rendered it was without jurisdiction, . . . or that it has ceased to be obligatory because of payment or other discharge . . . or that it is a cause of action for which the State of the forum has not provided a court."11
On the other hand, the clause is not violated when a judgment is disregarded because it is not conclusive of the issues before a court of the forum. Conversely, no greater effect can be given than is given in the state where rendered. Thus, an interlocutory judgment may not be given the effect of a final judgment.12 Likewise, when a federal court does not attempt to foreclose the state court from hearing all matters of personal defense that landowners might plead, a state court may refuse to accept the former's judgment as determinative of the landowners' liabilities.13 Similarly, though a confession of judgment upon a note, with a warrant of attorney annexed, in favor of the holder, is in conformity with a state law and usage as declared by the highest court of the state in which the judgment is rendered, the judgement may be collaterally impeached upon the ground that the party in whose behalf it was rendered was not in fact the holder.14 But a consent decree, which under the law of the state has the same force and effect as a decree in invitum, must be given the same effect in the courts of another state.15
Subsequent to its departure from Hampton v. McConnell,16 the Court does not appear to have formulated, as a substitute, any clear-cut principles for disposing of the contention that a state need not provide a forum for a particular type of judgment of a sister state. Thus, in one case, it held that a New York statute forbidding foreign corporations doing a domestic business to sue on causes originating outside the state was constitutionally applicable to prevent such a corporation from suing on a judgment obtained in a sister state.17 But, in a later case, it ruled that a Mississippi statute forbidding contracts in cotton futures could not validly close the courts of the state to an action on a judgment obtained in a sister state on such a contract, although the contract in question had been entered into in the forum state and between its citizens.18 Following the later rather than the earlier precedent, subsequent cases19 have held: (1) that a state may adopt such system of courts and form of remedy as it sees fit but cannot, under the guise of merely affecting the remedy, deny enforcement of claims otherwise within the protection of the full faith and credit clause when its courts have general jurisdiction of the subject matter and the parties;20 (2) that, accordingly, a forum state that has a shorter period of limitations than the state in which a judgment was granted and later revived erred in concluding that, whatever the effect of the revivor under the law of the state of origin, it could refuse enforcement of the revived judgment;21 (3) that the courts of one state have no jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of judgments at law obtained in another state, when the same reasons assigned for granting the restraining order were passed upon on a motion for new trial in the action at law and the motion denied;22 (4) that the constitutional mandate requires credit to be given to a money judgment rendered in a civil cause of action in another state, even though the forum state would have been under no duty to entertain the suit on which the judgment was founded, because a state cannot, by the adoption of a particular rule of liability or of procedure, exclude from its courts a suit on a judgment;23 and (5) that, similarly, tort claimants in State A who obtain a judgment against a foreign insurance company, notwithstanding that, prior to judgment, domiciliary State B appointed a liquidator for the company, vested company assets in him, and ordered suits against the company stayed, are entitled to have such judgment recognized in State B for purposes of determining the amount of the claim, although not for determination of what priority, if any, their claim should have.24
The jurisdictional question arises both in connection with judgments in personam against nonresident defendants to whom it is alleged personal service was not obtained in the state originating the judgment and in relation to judgments in rem against property or a status alleged not to have been within the jurisdiction of the court which handed down the original decree.25 Records and proceedings of courts wanting jurisdiction are not entitled to credit.26
When the subject matter of a suit is merely the defendant's liability, it is necessary that it should appear from the record that the defendant has been brought within the jurisdiction of the court by personal service of process, or by his voluntary appearance, or that he had in some manner authorized the proceeding.27 Thus, when a state court endeavored to acquire jurisdiction of a nonresident defendant by an attachment of his property within the state and constructive notice to him, its judgment was defective for want of jurisdiction and hence could not afford the basis of an action against the defendant in the court of another state, although it bound him so far as the property attached by virtue of the inherent right of a state to assist its own citizens in obtaining satisfaction of their just claims.28
The fact that a nonresident defendant was only temporarily in the state when he was served in the original action does not vitiate the judgment thus obtained and later relied upon as the basis of an action in his home state.29 Also a judgment rendered in the state of his domicile against a defendant who, pursuant to the statute thereof providing for the service of process on absent defendants, was personally served in another state is entitled to full faith and credit.30 When the matter of fact or law on which jurisdiction depends was not litigated in the original suit, it is a matter to be adjudicated in the suit founded upon the judgment.31
Because the principle of res judicata applies only to proceedings between the same parties and privies, the plea by defendant in an action based on a judgment that he was not party or privy to the original action raises the question of jurisdiction; although a judgment against a corporation in one state may validly bind a stockholder in another state to the extent of the par value of his holdings,32 an administrator acting under a grant of administration in one state stands in no sort of relation of privity to an administrator of the same estate in another state.33 But where a judgment of dismissal was entered in a federal court in an action against one of two joint tortfeasors, in a state in which such a judgment would constitute an estoppel in another action in the same state against the other tortfeasor, such judgment is not entitled to full faith and credit in an action brought against the tortfeasor in another state.34
In 1856, the Court decided Lafayette Ins. Co. v. French,35 a pioneer case in its general class. It held that, where a corporation chartered by the State of Indiana was allowed by a law of Ohio to transact business in the latter state upon the condition that service of process upon the agent of the corporation should be considered as service upon the corporation itself, a judgment obtained against the corporation by means of such process ought to receive in Indiana the same faith and credit as it was entitled to in Ohio.36 Later cases establish under both the Fourteenth Amendment and Article IV, § 1, that the cause of action must have arisen within the state obtaining service in this way,37 that service on an officer of a corporation, not its resident agent and not present in the state in an official capacity, will not confer jurisdiction over the corporation,38 that the question whether the corporation was actually doing business in the state may be raised.39 On the other hand, the fact that the business was interstate is no objection.40
By analogy to the above cases, it has been held that a state may require nonresident owners of motor vehicles to designate an official within the state as an agent upon whom process may be served in any legal proceedings growing out of their operation of a motor vehicle within the state.41 Although these cases arose under the Fourteenth Amendment alone, unquestionably a judgment validly obtained upon this species of service could be enforced upon the owner of a car through the courts of his home state.
In sustaining the challenge to jurisdiction in cases involving judgments in personam, the Court in the main was making only a somewhat more extended application of recognized principles. In order to sustain the same kind of challenge in cases involving judgments in rem it has had to make law outright. The leading case is Thompson v. Whitman.42 Thompson, sheriff of Monmouth County, New Jersey, acting under a New Jersey statute, had seized a sloop belonging to Whitman and by a proceeding in rem had obtained its condemnation and forfeiture in a local court. Later, Whitman, a citizen of New York, brought an action for trespass against Thompson in the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, and Thompson answered by producing a record of the proceedings before the New Jersey tribunal. Whitman thereupon set up the contention that the New Jersey court had acted without jurisdiction, inasmuch as the sloop which was the subject matter of the proceedings had been seized outside the county to which, by the statute under which it had acted, its jurisdiction was confined.
As previously explained, the plea of lack of privity cannot be set up in defense in a sister state against a judgment in rem. In a proceeding in rem, however, the presence of the res within the court's jurisdiction is a prerequisite, and this, it was urged, had not been the case in Thompson v. Whitman. Could, then, the Court consider this challenge with respect to a judgment which was offered, not as the basis for an action for enforcement through the courts of a sister state but merely as a defense in a collateral action? As the law stood in 1873, it apparently could not.43 All difficulties, nevertheless, to its consideration of the challenge to jurisdiction in the case were brushed aside by the Court. Whenever, it said, the record of a judgment rendered in a state court is offered "in evidence" by either of the parties to an action in another state, it may be contradicted as to the facts necessary to sustain the former court's jurisdiction; "and if it be shown that such facts did not exist, the record will be a nullity, notwithstanding the claim that they did exist."44
The Full Faith and Credit Clause has been interpreted in the light of the "incontrovertible maxim" that "the courts of no country execute the penal laws of another."45 In the leading case of Huntington v. Attrill,46 however, the Court so narrowly defined penal in this connection as to make it substantially synonymous with criminal and on this basis held a judgment which had been recovered under a state statute making the officers of a corporation who signed and recorded a false certificate of the amount of its capital stock liable for all of its debts to be entitled under Article IV, § 1, to recognition and enforcement in the courts of sister states. Nor, in general, is a judgment for taxes to be denied full faith and credit in state and federal courts merely because it is for taxes. In Nelson v. George,47 in which a prisoner was tried in California and North Carolina and convicted and sentenced in both states for various felonies, the Court determined that the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not require California to enforce a penal judgment handed down by North Carolina; California was free to consider what effect if any it would give to the North Carolina detainer.48 Until the obligation to extradite matured, the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not require California to enforce the North Carolina penal judgment in any way.
With regard to whether recognition of a state judgment can be refused by the forum state on other than jurisdictional grounds, there are dicta to the effect that judgments for which extraterritorial operation is demanded under Article IV, § 1 and acts of Congress are "impeachable for manifest fraud." But unless the fraud affected the jurisdiction of the court, the vast weight of authority is against the proposition. Also, it is universally agreed that a judgment may not be impeached for alleged error or irregularity,49 or as contrary to the public policy of the state where recognition is sought for it under the Full Faith and Credit Clause.50 Previously listed cases indicate, however, that the Court in fact has permitted local policy to determine the merits of a judgment under the pretext of regulating jurisdiction.51 Thus, in Cole v. Cunningham,52 the Court sustained a Massachusetts court in enjoining, in connection with insolvency proceedings instituted in that state, a Massachusetts creditor from continuing in New York courts an action that had been commenced there before the insolvency suit was brought. This was done on the theory that a party within the jurisdiction of a court may be restrained from doing something in another jurisdiction opposed to principles of equity, it having been shown that the creditor was aware of the debtor's embarrassed condition when the New York action was instituted. The injunction unquestionably denied full faith and credit and commanded the assent of only five Justices.