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UNITED STATES V. MORTON, 467 U. S. 822 (1984)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Morton, 467 U.S. 822 (1984)

United States v. Morton

No. 83-916

Argued April 25, 1984

Decided June 19, 1984

467 U.S. 822


When respondent, an Air Force Colonel, was stationed in Alaska, the Finance Office of his base received by certified mail a writ of garnishment, accompanied by a copy of a judgment against respondent that had been issued by an Alabama state court in a divorce proceeding. The writ directed the Air Force to withhold $4,100 of respondent's pay to satisfy sums due under the judgment for alimony and child support. Upon being notified of the writ, respondent told the Finance Office that the Alabama court's order was void because the court had no jurisdiction over him. Nevertheless, the Finance Office honored the writ and paid $4,100 to the Alabama court, deducting that amount from respondent's pay. Subsequently, respondent brought an action against the United States in the Court of Claims to recover the amount that had been withheld from his pay. The Government submitted as a complete defense 42 U.S.C. § 659(f), which provides, in connection with § 659(a), making federal employees, including members of the Armed Services, subject to legal process to enforce their child support and alimony payment obligations, that

"[n]either the United States, any disbursing officer, nor governmental entity shall be liable with respect to any payment made from moneys due or payable from the United States to any individual pursuant to legal process regular on its face,"

if such payment is made in accordance with the statute and the implementing regulations. The Court of Claims held that the writ of garnishment was not "legal process" within the meaning of § 659(f) because the definition of that term in 42 U.S.C. § 662(e) requires that it be issued by a "court of competent jurisdiction," that the Alabama court was not such a court, because it did not have personal jurisdiction over respondent, and that therefore respondent was entitled to recover the amount claimed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, when an obligor notifies the Government that the court issuing the garnishment order does not have personal jurisdiction over him, the order does not constitute "legal process regular on its face" within the meaning of § 659(f).

Held: The Government cannot be held liable for honoring a writ of garnishment, such as the one in question here, which is "regular on its face" and has been issued by a court with subject matter jurisdiction to issue such orders. Pp. 467 U. S. 827-836.

Page 467 U. S. 823

(a) The words "legal process" in § 659(f) must be read in light of the immediately following phrase -- "regular on its face." That phrase makes it clear that the term "legal process" does not require the issuing court to have personal jurisdiction. The plain language of § 659(f) cannot be escaped simply because the obligor may have provided some information casting doubt on the issuing court's jurisdiction over him. An inquiry into that court's jurisdiction over the obligor cannot be squared with that plain language, which requires the recipient of the writ to act on the basis of the "face" of the process. Pp. 467 U. S. 827-829.

(b) The legislative history shows that Congress did not contemplate the kind of inquiry into personal jurisdiction that the Court of Appeals' holding would require. That history, as well as the plain language of § 659(a), also indicates that Congress intended the Government to receive the same treatment as a private employer with respect to garnishment orders, whereby, in the great majority of jurisdictions in the United States, an employer, upon complying with a garnishment order, is discharged of liability to the judgment debtor to the extent of the payment made. Moreover, burdening the garnishment process with inquiry into the issuing court's jurisdiction over the debtor would only frustrate the fundamental purpose of § 659 of remedying the plight of persons left destitute because they had no speedy and efficacious means of ensuring that their child support and alimony would be paid. Pp. 467 U. S. 829-834.

(c) Controlling weight must be given to the implementing regulations that expressly provide that, when the Government receives legal process which, on its face, appears to conform to the laws of the jurisdiction from which it was issued, the Government is not required to ascertain whether the issuing authority had obtained personal jurisdiction over the obligor. These regulations cannot possibly be considered "clearly inconsistent" with the statute or "arbitrary," and they further the congressional intent to facilitate speedy enforcement of garnishment orders and to minimize the burden on the Government. Pp. 467 U. S. 834-836.

708 F.2d 680, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 467 U. S. 824

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