UC Law Journal


The federal courts have long viewed domestic relations litigation as beyond their competence, even though such cases often meet the statutory prerequisites for federal subject matter jurisdiction. While the Supreme Court has never squarely endorsed a broad jurisdictional exception for domestic relations cases, such a doctrine has been created and followed by the lower courts and, as such, is poorly defined and unevenly applied. This Article traces the development of the domestic relations "exception" from its ambiguous origins in early Supreme Court dicta to the uncontained doctrine presently endorsed by the lower courts. The Article first analyzes the pertinent Supreme Court authority and traditional rationales for the exception. It then examines the contemporary justifications relied on by the lower courts for continued adherence to the doctrine. Finally, the Article outlines an alternative approach to the question of federal court competence in domestic relations matters. The Article argues that by refusing to hear cases that fall within their statutory grants of jurisdiction, the federal courts are undermining a basic tenet of their institutional role. Once a federal court determines that a case comes within its constitutional and statutory competence, it should eschew the talismanic domestic relations exception. The decision to entertain or dismiss should be made according to objective criteria, utilizing under carefully defined circumstances the various abstention doctrines. The Article concludes that such use of abstention doctrines would result in a principled approach to and closer analysis of domestic relations suits, without significantly increasing the federal caseload.

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