The Domestic Relations Exception to Federal Court Diversity


Jurisdiction is the authority given to a court to try cases and rule on legal matters in a geographic area and over certain types of cases.  This concept includes three jurisdictional requirements including jurisdiction over the particular subject matter, over the marriage or partnership itself, and over the parties themselves.   All matters under the Family Code fall under the Superior Court’s jurisdiction.  Interestingly, there is no separate “family court,” despite the language inundating the populace through popular media.


     “Family court” is actually the Superior Court just performing one of its duties – to handle litigations arising under the Family Code.  Its jurisdiction extends to all matters that necessarily stem from the parties’ family rights and obligations including marital status, custody of minor children, child support, spousal support and settlement of the parties’ property rights.


     Under the United States Code, it would be possible for litigating spouses who are citizens of different states to find that a federal court might have jurisdiction based on “diversity of citizenship”.  Diversity of citizenship means the spouses are citizens of different states.  The possibility of this being so demonstrates the maturation of our legal system.  At one time, marriage extinguished a woman’s separate legal existence in that a woman’s legal identity was subsumed into her husband’s legal identity, thereby making it impossible for spouses to be citizens of different states.


     Nonetheless, there exists the “domestic relations exception” to federal court diversity jurisdiction in marital dissolution, support and custody matters.  As such, a federal court does not have authority to issue dissolution, support or custody orders.  The reason for this is not rooted in the doctrine of old, where a woman’s separate legal existence was extinguished in marriage, but rather in notions of judicial economy and expertise.  Essentially, the domestic-relations exception to federal jurisdiction prohibits the federal courts from hearing cases involving family law questions.


     Although the domestic-relations exception is mandatory, it is limited.  For instance, it does not apply to cases between spouses or ex-spouses not involving the orders for divorce, support or custody.  Also, the domestic-relations exception may not be invoked by a federal court to dismiss diversity jurisdiction wherein intrafamily lawsuits seek something other than dissolution, support or custody.  The exception does not apply when seeking to enforce a final judgment of dissolution under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, to determine a damages suit between spouses for breach of contract, or intrafamily tort actions.


     Interestingly, the domestic-relations exception is only applicable with regards to the diversity jurisdiction statute in the United States Code.  It does not apply where federal court jurisdiction is invoked under the federal question statute.  But even there, the federal court may decline to reach the federal issues until any underlying, intertwined domestic relations issues have been resolved by the state court.  The number of domestic cases heard in federal court would really be limited to contract, tort and constitutional cases.


     It has been said that the federal courts refusal to adjudicate diversity cases violates the congressional grant of authority under the diversity statute in the first place.  Further, when federal jurisdiction is properly invoked, the federal courts have a duty to decide issues of state law necessary in order to render a judgment.  Here springs the fascinating issues of federalism and comity.  Notably, in Canada, the central government controls marriage and divorce.  Depending on perspective, legal theory, economics and “value choices”, jurisdictional lines between federal and state will continue to be drawn.

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