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California v. Superior Court (Smolin)

Citation. California v. Superior Court of California, 482 U.S. 400, 107 S. Ct. 2433, 96 L. Ed. 2d 332, 55 U.S.L.W. 4807 (U.S. June 9, 1987)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Father and grandfather traveled to Louisiana and picked up his children without the knowledge of mother after attempts to enforce a custody decree failed. Mother instituted a criminal action for kidnapping, Father petitioned the California court to issue a writ of habeas corpus to prevent extradition.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Extradition Clause leaves only four issues open for consideration prior to a fugitive being delivered: 1) whether the extradition documents on their face are in order; 2) whether the petitioner has been charged with a crime in the demanding state; 3) whether the petitioner is the person named in the request for extradition; and 4) whether the petitioner is a fugitive.


Richard and Judith Smolin were divorced in California in 1978, with sole custody of their two children being awarded to Judith, subject to reasonable visitation rights for Richard. In August 1979 Judith married James Pope, and in November his work required the family to relocate to Oregon. The Popes moved without informing Richard. Richard alleged, and the California courts found, the Popes deliberately attempted to defeat Richard’s visitation rights and preclude him from a meaningful relationship with his children by moving from Oregon to Texas to Louisiana. In February 1981 the Popes obtained a decree from a Texas court granting full faith and credit to the original California custody order. Richard was served but did not appear. Before the Texas decree was issued, Richard sought and obtained in California a modification of the California decree, awarding joint custody. The Popes were properly served but did not appear or comply with the terms of the order. In Januar
y 1981 Richard instituted an action in California to find Judith in contempt and to again modify the custody decree to give him sole custody. The court granted him sole custody, subject to reasonable visitation rights for Judith. This order was also ignored by the Popes, acting on the advice of counsel that the California courts no longer had jurisdiction. Richard did not obtain physical custody for over two years. When he located the Popes in Louisiana, they initiated an adoption proceeding to sever Richard’s legal tie to the children. After obtaining a California warrant to obtain custody of the children, Richard and his father resorted to self-help. They picked up the children while they waited for their school bus and brought them to California. The Popes then submitted to the jurisdiction of the California court and instituted an action to modify the order granting Richard sole custody. While those proceedings were pending, the Popes instituted a criminal action against R
ichard and his father in Louisiana charging them with kidnapping. In August 1984 the Smolins petitioned the California court for a writ of habeas corpus to block the anticipated extradition warrants, which the Superior Court orally granted after taking judicial notice of the various custody orders that had been issued. California sought a writ of mandate in the California Court of Appeal on the ground that the Superior Court abused its discretion in blocking extradition. The Court of Appeal issued the writ, and a divided California Supreme Court reversed, finding that under the full faith and credit provisions the decrees conclusively established that Richard was the lawful custodian of the children and that the lawful custodian cannot be guilty of kidnapping.


Does the Extradition Clause of the United States Constitution and the Federal Extradition Act prevent the California Supreme Court from refusing to permit extradition in this case?


The California court erred by preventing jurisdiction.
The Extradition Clause of the United States Constitution places limits on the sovereign immunity of the States. It does not, however, establish a procedure by which interstate extradition is to take place. The Extradition Act is intended to establish such a procedure, and leave only four issues open for consideration prior to a fugitive being delivered: 1) whether the extradition documents on their face are in order; 2) whether the petitioner has been charged with a crime in the demanding state; 3) whether the petitioner is the person named in the request for extradition; and 4) whether the petitioner is a fugitive.

The Smolins contend that they have not been properly charged with a violation of Louisiana’s kidnapping statute. A properly certified Louisiana information charges the Smolins with violating the statute. The information is in the proper form, and sets forth facts that clearly satisfy each element of the crime. In the Court’s view, this ends the inquiry into the issue of whether or not a crime is charged.

The Smolins argue that more than a formal charge is required, and that the fugitive, upon a petition for writ of habeas corpus, should be permitted to show that the charging instrument is so insufficient it cannot withstand a generalized version of a motion to dismiss or common-law demurrer. Previous precedent makes clear that no such inquiry is permitted.

It is unclear why the States of California and Louisiana are eager to force the Smolins to face criminal charges that at least a majority of the California Supreme Court believe are meritless. If the Smolins are correct, they may be victims of a possible abuse of the criminal process. Nonetheless, under the Extradition Act it is for the Louisiana courts to decide, not the California courts.


Three reasons compel the conclusion that we should reject the notion that a parent who holds custody as determined by the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act must by extradited as a charged kidnapper. First, By allowing the custodial parent under federal law to be branded as a fugitive, the Court implicitly approves non-adherence to the uniform federal rule governing custody determinations. Second, requiring extradition is at cross purposes with Congress’ intent to discourage continuing interstate controversies over child custody and to deter interstate abductions and other unilateral removals of children undertaken to obtain custody and visitation awards. Third, the Extradition Clause should be construed consistently with the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act. The reasoning of the Court adopts an overly restrictive view of the questions that the habeas courts of a rendering State must pose.


The majority acknowledged that the charges the Smolins faced were weak, but found that the Extradition Act limited the inquiry that could be made to prevent jurisdiction. The dissent argued for a more expansive view.

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