In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided May 18, 1987

Justice O’Connor, Concurring

Topic: Federalism*Court vote: 8–1
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Joining O'Connor opinion: Justice STEVENS Justice STEVENS
Citation: 481 U.S. 619 Docket: 85–1206Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom JUSTICE STEVENS joins, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

I agree with the Court that Mr. Rose may be compelled to use his veterans' disability benefits to discharge his child support obligation. I would rest this conclusion, however, on a ground that the Court disdains -the distinction between familial support obligations and other debts. The Court apparently views Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U. S. 46 (1981), as an insuperable obstacle to acknowledging that this distinction makes the difference here. I disagree: while stare decisis concerns may counsel against overruling Ridgway's interpretation of the Servicemen's Group Life Insurance Act, I see no reason whatsoever to extend Ridgway's equation of business debts with family support obligations absent the clearest congressional direction to do so. Read in light of this Nation's common law heritage, the language of this statute, like that in Ridgway, incorporates, rather than rejects, this distinction.

The anti-attachment provision of 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) says:

Payments of benefits due or to become due under any law administered by the Veterans' Administration shall not be assignable except to the extent specifically authorized by law, and such payment made to, or on account of, a beneficiary shall be exempt from taxation, shall be exempt from the claim of creditors, and shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary.

In my view, the bar against "levy, attachment, or seizure" is simply a means of enforcing the "exempt[ion] from the claims of creditors." The plain intent of § 3101(a) is to protect the veteran and his family against the claims of creditors. It is not intended to protect the veteran against claims by his family. As JUSTICE STEVENS explained in dissent in Ridgway, Congress simply intended:

'[T]o relieve the person exempted from the pressure of claims hostile to his dependents' essential needs as well as his own personal ones, not to relieve him of familial obligations and destroy what may be the family's last and only security, short of public relief.'

454 U.S. at 454 U. S. 76, quoting Schlaefer v. Schlaefer, 71 App.D.C. 350, 358, 112 F.2d 177, 185 (1940) (per Rutledge, J.). See also 454 U.S. at 454 U. S. 68 (POWELL, J., dissenting).

Our Anglo-American tradition accords a special sanctity to the support obligation. Unlike other debts, for example, the obligation to support spouse and child is enforced on threat of contempt. These obligations, moreover, may not be discharged in bankruptcy. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5). Indeed, even before the bankruptcy laws specifically excepted the support obligation from the discharge, this Court inferred such an exception, explaining the difference between a support obligation and other debts:

We think the reasoning of [ Audubon v. Shufeldt, 181 U. S. 575 (1901),] recognizes the doctrine that a decree awarding alimony to the wife or children, or both, is not a debt which has been put in the form of a judgment, but is rather a legal means for enforcing the obligation of the husband and father to support and maintain his wife and children. He owes this duty not because of any contractual obligation or as a debt due from him to the wife, but because of the policy of the law which imposes the obligation upon the husband. The law interferes when the husband neglects or refuses to discharge this duty and enforces it against him by means of legal proceedings. * * * *" The obligation continues after the discharge in bankruptcy, as well as before, and is no more than the duty devolved by the law upon the husband to support his children, and is not a debt in any just sense.

Wetmore v. Markoe, 196 U. S. 68, 196 U. S. 74 -76 (1904).

Particularly relevant is the fact that the common law generally will not enforce similar anti-attachment provisions against a family member's claim for support. In discussing the very similar anti-attachment provision at issue in Ridgway v. Ridgway, supra, at 454 U. S. 74, JUSTICE STEVENS noted in dissent:

The language used in the 'anti-attachment' provision of the [Servicemen's Group Life Insurance Act] is comparable to that found in so-called 'spendthrift clauses' that have protected trust beneficiaries from the claims of commercial creditors for centuries. As stated by Dean Griswold, [i]t is widely held, however, that even where such trusts are generally valid, the interest of the beneficiary may be reached for the support of his wife orchildren, or for the payment of alimony to his wife. E. Griswold, Spendthrift Trusts 389 (2d ed.1947).

See also id. at 454 U. S. 73 -77 (STEVENS, J., dissenting).

As the Court acknowledges, ante at 481 U. S. 631 -632, until Ridgway, we had carefully refused to hold that anti-attachment provisions similar to § 3101(a) shield the beneficiary from the support claims of his spouse and children. Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U. S. 655, 338 U. S. 659 -660 (1950); Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U. S. 572, 439 U. S. 587 (1979). In addition, state courts all along have asserted that § 3101(a), its predecessors, and similar statutes do not make the support obligation unenforceable. Mims v. Mims, 442 So.2d 102, 103-104 (Ala.Civ.App.1983); Smolin v. First Fidelity Savings & Loan Assn., 238 Md. 386, 392-394, 209 A.2d 546, 549-550 (1965); Dillard v. Dillard, 341 S.W.2d 668, 675 (Tex.Civ.App.1960); Voelkel v. Tohulka, 236 Ind. 588, 592-593, 141 N.E.2d 344, 346, cert. denied, 355 U.S. 891 (1957); Pishue v. Pishue, 32 Wash.2d 750, 754-756, 203 P.2d 1070, 1072-1073 (1949); Hannah v. Hannah, 191 Ga. 134, 137-139, 11 S.E.2d 779, 781-782 (1940); Gaskins v. Security-First National Bank of Los Angeles, 30 Cal.App.2d 409, 417-418, 86 P.2d 681, 684-685 (1939); In re Gardner, 220 Wis. 490, 493, 264 N.W. 643, 647 (1936); Stirgus v. Stirgus, 172 Miss. 337, 341, 160 So. 285, 286 (1935); but cf. Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. at 454 U. S. 62, n. 11 (citing cases).

In short, the support obligation has always been granted a special place in our law. While the broad language of § 3101(a) seems clearly meant to bar the ordinary creditor's attachment, I cannot find, in light of this Nation's common law tradition, that the language of § 3101(a) expresses anything like the unequivocal congressional intent necessary to bar family members from enforcing the veteran's support obligation. The contrary holding in Ridgway is hopelessly anomalous, and should be relegated to the status of "a derelict on the waters of the law." Lambert v. California, 355 U. S. 225, 355 U. S. 232 (1957) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). Accordingly, I concur in Parts I, II-A, II-B, II-D, and III of the Court's opinion, and object only to its failure to rest its holding squarely on the unique force of the support obligation.

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