First Place, 2017 Howard C. Schwab Memorial Essay

Family Law Is Not “Civil”: The Faulty Foundation of the Domestic Relations Exception to Federal Jurisdiction

Joseph A. Carroll


Courts and scholars often refer to family law1 as a quintessentially and appropriately state-controlled and state-adjudicated area.2 The U.S. Supreme Court has frequently emphasized that the federal government’s reach must be limited within the realm of family law because family law is appropriately reserved for the states.3 Accordingly, the Supreme Court has long-recognized the “domestic relations exception” to federal subject matter jurisdiction to preserve family law issues for state courts.4 However, the legal foundation for the domestic relations exception and the exact parameters of the domestic relations exception have proven elusive and vexing for courts and litigants.5 Likely because the Supreme Court has failed to articulate a principled basis in either constitutional or statutory law for the domestic relations exception, federal courts’ definition and application of the domestic relations exception can, to quote Professor Michael Stein, “most charitably be described as chaotic.”6

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