Comity

The term “comity” comes from the Latin comitas, which means “friendly,” or “courteous.” In the legal world, comity refers to different nations, states, or courts coming together for some sort of mutual benefit. For example, comity refers to one court upholding a decision made by a court in a different jurisdiction out of respect for that other court. To explore this concept, consider the following comity definition.

Definition of Comity

Noun

  1. The practice among different political entities that recognizes the acts of each other’s legislative, judicial, and executive branches.

Origin

Mid-16th Century         Latin

The Comity Clause

The Comity Clause of the U.S. Constitution is also known as the Privileges and Immunities Clause. The Comity Clause states that the citizens of each state are no different from citizens in all the other states.

For example, comity dictates that a person accused of a crime in New York, who flees to Florida (a fugitive), is to be returned to the jurisdiction wherein he is accused of committing the crime and tried accordingly. Just because he flees to another state does not mean he escapes penalty. All states have a duty to the state that has jurisdiction over the matter, and they are to comply with returning the fugitive back to that state.

Doctrine of Abstention

The doctrine of abstention is a policy that states that the U.S. may refuse to hear a case if doing so would intrude upon the powers of another court. In some cases, in fact, the U.S. is required to refuse to hear the case. The doctrine of abstention typically applies when a plaintiff brings the same matter before different courts, such as state and federal court.

Comity Between State and Federal Jurisdictions

The way it works in the U.S. is that the federal court system can only hear certain cases. The individual states each have their own individual rules as well. It is in cases where the rules or jurisdictions of these two court systems overlap that the doctrine of abstention and comity typically apply. At the very least, if both courts were to hear the same case, it would be a waste of resources. At most, it would create confusion and cause both courts to believe that each was stepping on the toes of the other.

As a matter of comity and reciprocity, state courts generally:

  • Allow visitors to drive cars with drivers’ licenses from other states,
  • Recognize marriages and adoptions in other states, and
  • Grant professional licenses to migrants or visitors.

There is also a policy known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which is similar to a doctrine of abstention. Rooker-Feldman dictates that federal courts do not have the authority to review state court cases. However, the difference here is that Rooker-Feldman does not say federal courts should abstain from reviewing state cases. Instead, it dictates that federal courts do not have the jurisdiction to hear a case that was already decided in state court.

Comity Example Involving Courts in the U.S. and France

An example of comity occurred in the case of Hilton v. Guyot, which the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear in 1895. In this case, Gustave Bertin Guyot sued New Yorkers Henry Hilton and William Libbey for monies that Hilton and Libbey allegedly owed Guyot’s firm in Paris, France. Hilton and Libbey appeared before the court in France, and upon the conclusion of trial, the court ruled in Guyot’s favor. Hilton and Libbey appealed, only for the appellate court to affirm the lower court’s decision.

Back in the U.S.

After Guyot received these judgments in his favor, he tried to enforce them in New York’s federal district court. The court held that the judgment was enforceable in New York as well without the need for a retrial. Hilton and Libbey then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for yet another opinion. The Court then had to decide whether the laws that informed these judgments could exist on their own aside from the jurisdictions that granted the judgments.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Ultimately, the Court held that no, no law has any power on its own beyond the limits of the authority that enforces it, and reversed the French courts’ judgments. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that the extent to which one nation upholds the laws of another nation depends largely on the “comity of nations.”

In this case, a U.S. Court does not have to uphold a judgment made in France, as the judgment is only, according to the Court, proof that the plaintiffs were victorious in their claim. In other words, because a French court would not have enforced a judgment made in the U.S., neither should the U.S. Supreme Court enforce a judgment made in France.

Said the Court, in its own words:

“If we should hold this judgment to be conclusive, we should allow it an effect to which, supposing the defendants’ offers to be sustained by actual proof, it would, in the absence of a special treaty, be entitled in hardly any other country in Christendom except the country in which it was rendered. If the judgment had been rendered in this country, or in any other outside of the jurisdiction of France, the French courts would not have executed or enforced it except after examining into its merits. The very judgment now sued on would be held inconclusive in almost any other country than France.

In England and in the colonies subject to the law of England, the fraud alleged in its procurement would be a sufficient ground for disregarding it. In the courts of nearly every other nation, it would be subject to reexamination either merely because it was a foreign judgment or because judgments of that nation would be reexaminable in the courts of France.

For these reasons, in the action at law, the Judgment is reversed, and the cause remanded to the circuit court, with directions to set aside the verdict and to order a new trial. For the same reasons, in the suit in equity between these parties, the foreign judgment is not a bar, and therefore the Decree dismissing the bill is reversed the plea adjudged bad, and the cause remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.

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