Harris v. Balk,
198 U.S. 215 (1905)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Harris v. Balk, 198 U.S. 215 (1905)

Harris v. Balk

No. 191

Argued April 4. 1905

Decided May 8, 1905

198 U.S. 215


A citizen of North Carolina who owed money to another citizen of that state, was, while temporarily in Maryland, garnisheed by a creditor of the man to whom he owed the money. Judgment was duly entered according to Maryland practice, and paid. Thereafter, the garnishee was sued in North Carolina by the original creditor and set up the garnishee judgment and payment, but the North Carolina courts held that, as the situs of the debt was in North Carolina, the Maryland judgment was not a bar, and awarded judgment against him. Held, error and that:

As, under the laws of Maryland, the garnishee could have been sued by his creditor in the courts of that state, he was subject to garnishee process if found and served in the state, even though only there temporarily, no matter where the situs of the debt was originally.

Attachment is the creature of the local law, and power over the person of the garnishee confers jurisdiction on the courts of the state where the writ issues. A judgment against a garnishee, properly obtained according to the law of the state and paid, must, under the full faith and credit clause of the federal Constitution, be recognized as a payment of the original debt by the courts of another state in an action brought against the garnishee by the original creditor.

Where there is absolutely no defense and the plaintiff is entitled to recover, there is no reason why the garnishee should not consent to a judgment impounding the debt, and his doing so does not amount to such a voluntary payment that he is not protected thereby under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution.

While it is the object of the courts to prevent the payment of any debt

Page 198 U. S. 216

twice over, the failure on the part of the garnishee to give proper notice to his creditor of the levying of the attachment would be such neglect of duty to his creditor as would prevent him from availing of the garnishee judgment as bar to the suit of the creditor, and thus oblige him to pay the debt twice.

The plaintiff in error brings the case here in order to review the judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina affirming a judgment of a lower court against him for $180, with interest, as stated therein. The case has been several times before the Supreme Court of that state, and is reported in 122 N.C. 64, again, 124 N.C. 467. The opinion delivered at the time of entering the judgment now under review is to be found in 130 N.C. 381. And see also 132 N.C. 10.

The facts are as follows: the plaintiff in error, Harris, was a resident of North Carolina at the time of the commencement of this action in 1896, and prior to that time was indebted to the defendant in error, Balk, also a resident of North Carolina, in the sum of $180, for money borrowed from Balk by Harris during the year 1896, which Harris verbally promised to repay, but there was no written evidence of the obligation. During the year above mentioned, one Jacob Epstein, a resident of Baltimore, in the State of Maryland, asserted that Balk was indebted to him in the sum of over $300. In August, 1896, Harris visited Baltimore for the purpose of purchasing merchandise, and while he was in that city temporarily on August 6, 1896, Epstein caused to be issued out of a proper court in Baltimore a foreign or nonresident writ of attachment against Balk, attaching the debt due Balk from Harris, which writ the sheriff at Baltimore laid in the hands of Harris, with a summons to appear in the court at a day named. With that attachment, a writ of summons and a short declaration against Balk (as provided by the Maryland statute) were also delivered to the sheriff, and by him set up at the courthouse door, as required by the law of Maryland. Before the return day of the attachment writ, Harris left Baltimore and returned to his home in North Carolina. He did not contest the garnishee

Page 198 U. S. 217

process, which was issued to garnish the debt which Harris owed Balk. After his return, Harris made an affidavit on August 11, 1896, that he owed Balk $180, and stated that the amount had been attached by Epstein, of Baltimore, and, by his counsel in the Maryland proceeding, Harris consented therein to an order of condemnation against him as such garnishee for $180, the amount of his debt to Balk. Judgment was thereafter entered against the garnishee and in favor of the plaintiff, Epstein, for $180. After the entry of the garnishee judgment, condemning the $180 in the hands of the garnishee, Harris paid the amount of the judgment to one Warren, an attorney of Epstein, residing in North Carolina. On August 11, 1896, Balk commenced an action against Harris before a justice of the peace in North Carolina, to recover the $180 which he averred Harris owed him. The plaintiff in error, by way of answer to the suit, pleaded in bar the recovery of the Maryland judgment and his payment thereof, and contended that it was conclusive against the defendant in error in this action, because that judgment was a valid judgment in Maryland, and was therefore entitled to full faith and credit in the courts of North Carolina. This contention was not allowed by the trial court, and judgment was accordingly entered against Harris for the amount of his indebtedness to Balk, and that judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The ground of such judgment was that the Maryland court obtained no jurisdiction to attach or garnish the debt due from Harris to Balk, because Harris was but temporarily in the state, and the situs of the debt was in North Carolina.

Page 198 U. S. 221

Primary Holding

As an individual's property, debt can be a basis for personal jurisdiction over an individual based on a quasi in rem theory.


Harris, a North Carolina resident, owed $180 to Balk, who was also a North Carolina resident. Meanwhile, Balk owed $344 to Epstein, a Maryland resident. When Harris was visiting Maryland, Epstein attached the debt that Harris owed to Balk as a partial payment of Balk's debt to Epstein. After Harris did not dispute this process, Epstein received judgment for $180, and Harris paid this amount. Balk later filed a claim to pursue the $180 that he was owed, but Harris noted that Epstein had received this amount through the Maryland case. Balk prevailed in the trial court because it ruled that Maryland lacked jurisdiction over Harris. This prevented it from attaching the debt due to Balk as long as Harris was only temporarily in Maryland and North Carolina remained the relevant location of the debt.



  • Rufus Wheeler Peckham (Author)
  • Melville Weston Fuller
  • David Josiah Brewer
  • Henry Billings Brown
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Joseph McKenna
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Wherever the person of the debtor can be found, the courts in that state have the authority to issue a writ of attachment and garnish the debt. The place where the debt was incurred or the nature of the debtor's presence in the state do not affect this authority or the obligation of the debtor to pay the debt. As long as process is personally served and the creditor could sue the debtor in a state, a court in that state has the power to collect the debt. These requirements were met by the Maryland court, and the plaintiff was aware of the Maryland action at the time, so he should have contested it if he did not want to be bound by it.


  • John Marshall Harlan (Author)
  • William Rufus Day

Case Commentary

Personal service of process on a debtor allows a state to gain quasi in rem jurisdiction over the debt, although more complex issues may arise if the debtor is a multi-state corporation or an individual who leaves for another state or country.

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