Ankenbrandt v. Richards
504 U.S. 689 (1992)

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No. 91-367. Argued March 31, 1992-Decided June 15, 1992

Petitioner brought this suit on behalf of her daughters in the District Court, alleging federal jurisdiction based on the diversity-of-citizenship provision of 28 U. S. C. § 1332, and seeking monetary damages for alleged torts committed against the girls by their father and his female companion, the respondents here. The court granted respondents' motion to dismiss without prejudice, ruling in the alternative that it lacked jurisdiction because the case fell within the "domestic relations" exception to diversity jurisdiction and that its decision to dismiss was justified under the abstention principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. A domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction exists as a matter of statutory construction. Pp. 693-701.

(a) The exception stems from Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, 584, in which the Court announced in dicta, without citation of authority or discussion of foundation, that federal courts have no jurisdiction over suits for divorce or the allowance of alimony. The lower federal courts have ever since recognized a limitation on their jurisdiction based on that statement, and this Court is unwilling to cast aside an understood rule that has existed for nearly a century and a half. Pp. 693-695.

(b) An examination of Article III, § 2, of the Constitution and of Barber and its progeny makes clear that the Constitution does not mandate the exclusion of domestic relations cases from federal-court jurisdiction. Rather, the origins of the exception lie in the statutory requirements for diversity jurisdiction. De la Rama v. De la Rama, 201 U. S. 303, 307. Pp. 695-697.

(c) That the domestic relations exception exists is demonstrated by the inclusion of the defining phrase, "all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity," in the pre-1948 versions of the diversity statute, by Barber's implicit interpretation of that phrase to exclude divorce and alimony actions, and by Congress' silent acceptance of this construction for nearly a century. Considerations of stare decisis have particular strength in this context, where the legislative power is implicated, and Congress remains free to alter what this Court has done. Patterson v.



McLean Credit Union, 491 U. S. 164,172-173. Furthermore, it may be presumed that Congress amended the diversity statute in 1948 to replace the law/equity distinction with § 1332's "all civil actions" phrase with full cognizance of the Court's longstanding interpretation of the prior statutes, and that, absent any indication of an intent to the contrary, Congress adopted that interpretation in reenacting the statute. pp. 697-70l.

2. The domestic relations exception does not permit a district court to refuse to exercise diversity jurisdiction over a tort action for damages. The exception, as articulated by this Court since Barber, encompasses only cases involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree. As so limited, the exception's validity must be reaffirmed, given the long passage of time without any expression of congressional dissatisfaction and sound policy considerations of judicial economy and expertise. Because this lawsuit in no way seeks a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree, the Court of Appeals erred by affirming the District Court's invocation of the domestic relations exception. Federal subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to § 1332 is proper in this case. Pp. 701-704.

3. The District Court erred in abstaining from exercising jurisdiction under the Younger doctrine. Although this Court has extended Younger abstention to the civil context, it has never applied the notions of comity so critical to Younger where, as here, no proceeding was pending in state tribunals. Similarly, while it is not inconceivable that in certain circumstances the abstention principles developed in Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U. S. 315, might be relevant in a case involving elements of the domestic relationship even when the parties do not seek divorce, alimony, or child custody, such abstention is inappropriate here, where the status of the domestic relationship has been determined as a matter of state law, and in any event has no bearing on the underlying torts alleged. Pp. 704-706.

934 F.2d 1262, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 707. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined, post, p. 717.

Richard Ducote argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Divorce, alimony, and child custody matters comprise the domestic relations exceptions to the jurisdiction of federal courts in diversity cases.


Ankenbrandt sued Richards, her former husband, on a tort claim based on his alleged sexual and physical abuse of their children. She brought the case in federal court under diversity jurisdiction, but it was dismissed on the basis that it was subject to the domestic relations exception to this form of jurisdiction.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter

Federal courts do have jurisdiction over cases involving domestic relations if they do not involve seeking the granting or modification of a divorce or alimony decree, based on dicta in the 1859 case of Barber v. Barber. A more recent extension to this doctrine includes decrees in child custody cases. However, the plaintiff is not seeking to obtain or modify any of these three types of decrees, since her claim is based on a tort theory. Federal jurisdiction thus is proper.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

There should be no domestic relations exception, since it cannot be inferred from the statute creating diversity jurisdiction or from the Constitution. However, federal courts should have the discretion to abstain from resolving these cases because states have a greater interest in domestic relations issues.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

There is no need to determine whether a domestic relations exception should exist, since the situation in this case clearly falls outside it even if it does exist.

Case Commentary

State have an especially strong interest in family matters, so the domestic relations exception trumps concerns about bias against outsiders. Enforcement and monitoring also tend to be more manageable at the local level.

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