Ankenbrandt, as Next Friend and Mother of L.R., et al. v. Richards, et al.
Decided on June 15, 1992; 504 US 689


A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (federal), Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution (scope of judicial power), juvenile rights

 B. Legal Question Presented: 

Should the federal courts have jurisdiction in a case involving torts committed against children by their father and his female companion, when the only basis for federal jurisdiction is the diversity of citizenship between the children's' mother and the defendants?

A. Background:

A juvenile court in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, entered a judgment under the State's child protection laws, permanently terminating all parental rights of Respondent John Richards because of the physical and sexual abuse by him and his female companion (Debora Kesler) of his two minor daughters.  The judgment also permanently enjoined him from any contact with the children.
One month later, Petitioner Carol Ankenbrandt, a citizen of Missouri, sued on behalf of her daughters, alleging federal jurisdiction based on the diversity-of-citizenship provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (Richards being a citizen of Louisiana), seeking monetary damages for the abuse committed against the girls by their father and his female companion. The court granted Respondents' motion to dismiss without prejudice, ruling 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 abstention principles.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision.  The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Richard Lynn Ducote argued the cause for petitioners. Paul S. Weidenfeld argued the cause for respondents. 
With him on the brief was Samuel S. Dalton.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Marcia Robinson Lowry, Steven R. Shapiro, and John A. Powell filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were filed on Respondent's behalf.

"The domestic relations exception upon which the courts below relied to decline jurisdiction has been invoked often by the lower federal courts. The seeming authority for doing so originally stemmed from the announcement [in prior case law]... that the federal courts have no jurisdiction over suits for divorce or the allowance of alimony... The statements disclaiming jurisdiction over divorce and alimony decree suits, though technically dicta, formed the basis for excluding 'domestic relations' cases from the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts, a jurisdictional limitation those courts have recognized ever since...
An examination of Article III... makes clear that the Constitution does not exclude domestic relations cases from the jurisdiction otherwise granted by statute to the federal courts...
We thus are content to rest our conclusion that a domestic relations exception exists as a matter of statutory construction not on the accuracy of the historical justifications on which it was seemingly based, but rather on Congress' apparent acceptance of this construction of the diversity jurisdiction provisions in the years prior to 1948, when the statute limited jurisdiction to 'suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity.'
When Congress amended the diversity statute in 1948 to replace the law/equity distinction with the phrase 'all civil actions,' we presume Congress did so with full cognizance of the Court's nearly century-long interpretation of the prior statutes, which had construed the statutory diversity jurisdiction to contain an exception for certain domestic relations matters. With respect to the 1948 amendment, the Court has previously stated that 'no changes of law or policy are to be presumed from changes of language in the revision unless an intent to make such changes is clearly expressed.'
Subsequently, this Court expanded the domestic relations exception to include decrees in child custody cases... [T]he statement that '[t]he whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States and not to the law
s of the United States,' has been interpreted by the federal courts to apply with equal vigor in suits brought pursuant to diversity jurisdiction... We conclude, therefore, that the domestic relations exception, as articulated by this Court... divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees. Given the long passage of time without any expression of congressional dissatisfaction, we have no trouble today reaffirming the validity of the exception as it pertains to divorce and alimony decrees and child custody orders...
We thus conclude that the Court of Appeals erred by affirming the District Court's rulings to decline jurisdiction based on the domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction... The exception has no place in a suit such as this one, in which a former spouse sues another on behalf of children alleged to have been abused. Because the allegations in this complaint do not request the District Court to issue a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree, we hold that the suit is appropriate for the exercise of § 1332 jurisdiction given the existence of diverse citizenship between petitioner and respondents and the pleading of the relevant amount in controversy. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Held:   A domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction exists as a matter of statutory construction.
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • White, B. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Pro (Joined Stevens' concurring opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court's ruling in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.