MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
On January 17, 1951, a New York court granted George Brewer, Jr., a decree of divorce from his wife, now Aida Kovacs. Custody of their five-year-old daughter, Jane, was awarded to George Brewer, Sr., the paternal
The grandfather refused to surrender the child, but the mother took no steps to enforce her custody award until February 1956—14 months after the decree had been modified. At that time she brought the present action in a North Carolina state court to secure the child.
After hearing the case on affidavits, stipulations and the pleadings, the trial court made numerous findings. Among other things, it determined that for more than a year immediately preceding the hearing the grandfather had required no medical care for heart or diabetic ailments and was able to work and to properly care for his granddaughter. The court also found that a 17-year-old stepson, who had been residing in the grandfather's home at the time the New York decree was modified, had moved from the home thus leaving more space for the remaining occupants and giving the grandfather a better opportunity to provide for the grandchild. On the basis of these and other findings the trial court concluded that it was "not bound by or required to give effect to the decree of the Court of the State of New York made in 1954" and that the welfare of the child demanded that she remain under the grandfather's custody in the environment to which she had become accustomed.
On appeal the North Carolina Supreme Court approved the trial court's findings, and without specifying any particular reason upheld its "conclusion of law." The court then went on to declare, seemingly as an alternative ground of decision, that the New York decree was not binding because the divorce court had no jurisdiction to modify its original custody award after the child had become a resident and domiciliary of North Carolina. 245 N.C. 630, 97 S.E.2d 96. We granted
In this Court the petitioner, Mrs. Kovacs, contends (1) that the New York divorce court had jurisdiction to modify its decree by awarding her custody of the child, (2) that in any event the question of jurisdiction was res judicata in the North Carolina courts because both the father and grandfather had appeared in the New York proceeding, and (3) that the North Carolina courts failed to give the custody decree, as modified, the faith and credit required by the Federal Constitution and statute.
Whatever effect the Full Faith and Credit Clause may have with respect to custody decrees, it is clear, as the Court stated in Halvey, "that the State of the forum has at least as much leeway to disregard the judgment, to qualify it, or to depart from it as does the State where it was rendered." 330 U. S., at 615. Petitioner concedes
The judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is vacated and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
At stake in this case is the welfare of a child. More immediately the question before us is what restriction, if any, does the Constitution of the United States impose on a state court when it is determining the custody of a child before it. The contest here for the child's custody is between her mother and her grandparents: a mother whom a New York court, in divorce proceedings while the child was present in New York, did not find to be a suitable custodian, and the grandparents, living in North Carolina, to whom the New York court decreed the custody of the child and with whom the child, now twelve years of age, has lived happily for the last six and one-half years. A second New York decree, rendered while the child was in North Carolina, awarded her custody to the mother. A North Carolina court, after a full hearing, with all the relevant parties, including the child, before it, has found that the child's welfare precludes severance of the child's custody from the grandparents.
The facts are these: Petitioner and George Brewer, Jr., son of respondent, were married in New York City in 1945. A child, Jane Elizabeth, was born to them in 1946. In 1950 Brewer, Jr., instituted a divorce action against petitioner in New York, and on January 17, 1951, the New York court granted him a divorce. Finding that "the best interests of the child" so required, that court awarded custody of Jane Elizabeth to respondent until Brewer, Jr., should be discharged from the Navy, at which time he might assume sole custody. The child was at that time both domiciled and resident in New York. After the decree was rendered petitioner went into hiding with the child. Respondent secured control of the child by writ of habeas corpus after she was found in September 1951 and took her to his home in North Carolina, where the child has been living with respondent and his wife until the
In 1954, after having married one Kovacs, petitioner applied to the New York court for a modification of the divorce decree so that custody of the child be awarded to her. In December 1954 the New York court, through a judge other than the one who had rendered the original decree, awarded to petitioner custody of the child, who was not before the court but in North Carolina, on the ground that "[t]he accommodations and surround[ing]s of the mother are acceptable for the welfare of the infant and would be more desirable for an eight year old girl, whose bringing up belongs to her mother."
Respondent refused to deliver the child to petitioner as directed by the New York decree. In February 1956 petitioner brought this suit in a North Carolina court, seeking to have respondent compelled to surrender custody of the child to petitioner and to have custody, awarded to petitioner by the court. After a full hearing on the merits of the question of the child's proper custody, at which petitioner, respondent, Brewer, Jr., and the child were present, the North Carolina court denied the relief requested by petitioner; it determined that it was not required to give effect to the 1954 New York decree and awarded custody of the child to respondent.
While there is substantial accord among the courts as to the practical outcome of cases involving the extraterritorial effect of custody decrees, there has been no little confusion and lack of clarity in the language they have employed in justifying those results. The uncritical reliance of courts, in dealing with the problem raised by this case, upon such concepts as "change of circumstances" has led one learned commentator to remark that "words have been the chief trouble-makers in this field." Stansbury, Custody and Maintenance Law Across State Lines, 10 Law & Contemp. Prob. 819, 826. Although the question presented here is a narrow one, it is of a kind that confronts state courts with great frequency: does the Federal Constitution require North Carolina to give effect to the second New York decree, awarding custody of the child to the petitioner? The evident implication of the Court's opinion today is that, unless "circumstances have changed" since the latter decree, it must be given full faith and credit.
It was the purpose of the Full Faith and Credit Clause to preclude dissatisfied litigants from taking advantage of the federal character of the Nation by relitigating in one State issues that had been duly decided in another. The clause was thus designed to promote a major policy of the law: that there be certainty and finality and an end to harassing litigation. But when courts are confronted
Because the child's welfare is the controlling guide in a custody determination, a custody decree is of an essentially transitory nature. The passage of even a relatively short period of time may work great changes, although difficult of ascertainment, in the needs of a developing child. Subtle, almost imperceptible, changes in the fitness and adaptability of custodians to provide for such needs may develop with corresponding rapidity. A court that is called upon to determine to whom and under what circumstances custody of an infant will be granted cannot, if it is to perform its function responsibly, be bound by a prior decree of another court, irrespective of whether "changes in circumstances" are objectively provable. To say this not to say that a court should pay no attention to a prior decree or to the status quo established by it. These are, of course, among the relevant and even important circumstances that a court should consider when exercising a judgment on what the welfare of a child before it requires. See New York ex rel. Allen v. Allen,
In short, both the underlying purpose of the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the nature of the decrees militate strongly against a constitutionally enforced requirement of respect to foreign custody decrees. New York itself, the State for whose decree full faith and credit is here demanded, has rejected the applicability of that requirement to custody decrees. See, e. g., Bachman v. Mejias, 1 N.Y.2d 575, 580, 136 N.E.2d 866, 868 (1956) ("The full faith and credit clause does not apply to custody decrees"); New York ex rel. Herzog v. Morgan, 287 N.Y. 317, 320, 39 N.E.2d 255, 256 (1942); New York ex rel. Allen v. Allen, supra; Hicks v. Bridges, 2 App. Div. 2d 335, 339, 155 N.Y.S.2d 746, 751 (1956); New York ex rel. Kniffin v. Knight, 184 Misc. 545, 550, 56 N.Y.S.2d 108, 113 (1945). And writers on the subject have observed a marked tendency among other state courts to arrive at this same conclusion, although often spelling out their judgments in traditional terms. See Ehrenzweig, Interstate Recognition of Custody Decrees, 51 Mich. L. Rev. 345; Stansbury, supra.
This case vividly illustrates the evil of requiring one court, which may be peculiarly well-situated for making the delicate determination of what is in the child's best interests, to defer to a prior foreign decree, which may well be the result of a superficial or abstract judgment on what the child's welfare requires. In this case, the New York decree was rendered in a proceeding at which the child was not present—indeed, was not even within the State—by a judge who, so far as the record shows, had never seen her. Whatever force such a decree might have in New York, the Federal Constitution at all events does not require its blind acceptance elsewhere. The minimum
Whatever may be the Court's formal disavowal, a federal question can be found for review here only if the Court requires, however implicitly, that North Carolina give full faith and credit to the second New York decree. For if the Supreme Court of North Carolina is obliged to find that "circumstances have changed" since the second New York decree in order not to be bound by it, it must be that that decree has legal significance under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. The State Supreme Court has already declared unqualifiedly—not as an "alternative ground" but as a necessary disposition of a constitutional claim—that it is not bound by the New York decree. But now the North Carolina decree is allowed to stand only if the highest court of that State will shelter its basis for leaving the custody of this child to the grandparents, under whose nurturing care she has been all these years, by labeling the factors that have led to this determination as "changed circumstances" from what the absentee court had found. Inevitably this is to open the door wide to evasion of the Full Faith and Credit Clause after finding in it a command regarding
This Court should indeed be rigorous in avoiding constitutional issues where a reasonable alternative exists. But a constitutional issue cannot be, and is not, avoided when a ruling is made that necessarily—and not the less because it does so impliedly—includes it. To what end must the Supreme Court of North Carolina justify its determination that the child should remain with her grandfather, by finding that there has been a change from the conditions under which the New York decree was rendered, unless in default of such a justification that court must be held to have disregarded its constitutional duty to give full faith and credit to the New York decree? If this construction as to the extraterritorial enforceability of the in absentia New York decree is not the necessarily implied meaning of today's decision, it can mean only that this Court is enforcing the local North Carolina law of conflicts as to the respect to be paid the prior New York decree.
To be sure, there are situations where the Court properly disavows passing on a constitutional question because it is not clear whether it is here. If a state court judgment rests on an unclear admixture of federal and state grounds and therefore does not of itself disclose the required federal question as a basis for this Court's jurisdiction, the ambiguity may be removed by remanding
I would affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
"13. That the petitioner, Aida Kovacs, is not a fit and proper person to have the care, custody and control of the minor, Jane Elizabeth Brewer.
"14. That George A. Brewer, Sr. is a man of excellent character, good habits and conduct, and is a fit and suitable person to have the care, custody and control of the minor, Jane Elizabeth Brewer.
"15. That the welfare, interest and development of the child will be materially promoted by allowing her to remain in the custody of George A. Brewer, Sr. and in the environment to which she has become accustomed and upon which in a measure she depends."